Homelessness is on the rise and so are the numbers of the hidden homeless. Tej Adeleye goes where authorities won’t to find out how the forgotten young survive
A flustered social worker answers the phone. It’s the second time I’ve called the hostel in 20 minutes, trying to track down Rachel, 17. The social worker apologises and Rachel comes to the phone. There’s further delay, as she has to use the office phone. It’ll cut into staff time and Rachel won’t have any privacy, but she doesn’t mind – when you’ve spent years living in other people’s space, compromise is a survival technique.
“It’s tough when you’re sleeping on someone else’s couch, they’re feeding you and you don’t have much money,” she says. “You don’t feel like yourself anymore. You’re depending on other people so much, for your life. If you haven’t got their couch, you’ve got the streets and that’s it.” Rachel is engaging, friendly enough, but guarded, with an undercurrent of defensiveness that never quite subsides. For some of the estimated 80,000 young people who became homeless in the UK last year, couch-surfing, though seldom recognised as such, is a final defence against sleeping rough.
Rachel was forced to leave home after her relationship with her mother broke down. “Basically me and my mum were having lots of arguments. Something tragic happened and we just didn’t get on, so she kicked me out. It had been building up for a year and we’d argue over everything: my brothers, things at home I didn’t agree with. It just reached a point where I had to leave.”
Relationship breakdowns are the primary reason for youth homelessness in the UK. But the government, in an effort to reduce the state’s role, presumes all young people have a stable family home to live in. The recession isn’t helping, either. Kay Verity, from Nottingham’s Broxstowe Youth Homelessness project, says, “Parents are seeing their unemployed children at home not bringing anything in, and that causes tensions, too.” The changes to Local Housing Allowance (LHA), a benefit aimed at people renting on low income, could have a significantly negative impact: families will have their LHA reduced for every over-16 not in education living in the family home, something many agencies believe will cause rocketing homelessness.
Some parts of her story Rachel refuses to revisit. But after her stepfather passed away when she was 14, her relationship with her mum worsened and grew violent. She was continuously being thrown out, until she finally left to stay with her aunt, who acted as mediator. It worked temporarily, but she was thrown out again last Christmas, returning to her aunt’s Rochdale house, dividing time between there and friends in Manchester. Her education, already suffering from poor attendance, became impossible: her sole priority was ensuring she had somewhere to sleep every night. “Eventually, I did end up sleeping rough three or four times over a period of three months. I’d fallen out with one of my friends, and I’d lost contact with my aunt.”
Many young couch-surfers are unaware of their homelessness, like Joe, 24, who’s been floating between sofas and hostels for eight years, since his mother threw him out at 16. Nowhere has felt like home. “I didn’t realise I was homeless when I was sofa-surfing, because I thought if you’ve got a roof over your head then you aren’t really”.
Kay Verity points to the need for more preventative measures before relationships reach breaking point. Her project runs workshops and seminars in schools to raise awareness. “Homelessness isn’t selective,” she says. “There’s an image in the minds of young people that exists of the homeless as old bearded men in doorways. We are finding that more young people are ending up homeless, and it’s more likely they will be 16 to 17. The key thing [with domestic problems] is to bring in mediation before things reach tipping point.”
Rachel is convinced that would’ve helped her relationship with her mother. So what was her eventual saving grace? “Connexions. They gave me a referral to a local housing project and helped me with food, then I got referrals for hostels and food packages, too.” Rachel is now living in a De Paul UK youth hostel, studying health and social care, with her eyes set on university and qualifying as a social worker. She hopes to start programmes to help young people in her situation – an idea unimaginable only a few months ago. Equally unimaginable to her is the fact that, since coming to power, this government has dissolved 75% of Connexions Centres and George Osborne has proposed scrapping housing benefit for the under-25s.
“I think it’s awful. With benefits and housing, things are so strict and you don’t know what to do when you are in that situation. I had my benefits, so that helped, but other people who are homeless sometimes can’t receive them – obviously they will be far worse off than I was. You just need to find the right services. I didn’t realise how many young kids were homeless until I started going to the City Centre Project and seeing it wasn’t just me.”
In the past year, figures for youth homelessness, which only includes those that authorities are aware of, have risen alarmingly. The number of young people classified as statutory homeless has increased by 9% this year and by 27% since 2010. In London alone, rough sleeping has doubled. But the most frightening stat is left unsaid: it doesn’t include the ‘hidden homeless’, those who, according to James Hall, Policy and Research Assistant at Centrepoint, are surviving by “sleeping on night buses, squatting, sofa-surfing or living in insecure accommodation”.
James shares Rachel’s concerns about the cuts to services. “A lot of people don’t realise the Connexions services weren’t just about careers advice – many of the young people we’ve supported were referred to us through Connexions. There’s been a huge increase in rough sleeping and youth homelessness in recent times and it’s a direct effect of the cuts,” says James. “Young people are often low paid, and with [cuts to] the LHA, there are fewer areas young people can afford to live in.”
He says reduced benefits mean young people are cutting into living allowances and having to make the “shocking choice between eating or paying their rent”. These are the daily difficulties that young people are already facing; both Kay and James are certain that the proposed changes will see an increase in young people, employed and unemployed, struggling to cope with living costs and ending up homeless. Journalist Deborah Orr, herself a squatter when she first moved to London, points to the cuts as being a “good way of promoting youth homelessness. It’s stressful couch-surfing, and can only be sustained for a short time. All the difficulties around young people point to one single problem: the lack of homes within their price range.”
The image of us as dependent out of choice is flawed and insulting to a generation already branded as lost. Homelessness means not just diminished prospects, but an eroding sense of self. An identity can disappear without a space of its own, being dependent and unable to plan for the future. Joe understands the feeling well. “It can be hard if you’re in different hostels, the not knowing where you’ll be next. I’m seeing a lot of young people who lack motivation because they feel so bad, that there’s no point. Everything starts from where you wake up and how you are feeling.”
Sofa-surfing is challenging. Rachel found it “embarrassing” to admit to, and difficult when friends ran out of empathy. For all the young people – employed, unemployed, graduates, non-graduates – having to couch-surf to survive, home is where the sofa is because times are hard.
“It’s better than being on the street, but its not easy, it’s a real mad lifestyle,” says Joe. Perhaps it’s better to say this nomadic lifestyle, wandering between the winds of available hospitality, is no life at all.