It is well-known that care leavers are more likely to experience homelessness but significant gaps in policy and practice to support these young people remain. As we eagerly await the final recommendations of the Independent Care Review to Government, our new joint briefing based on practice from ourselves, New Horizon and Youth Legal contains cases studies of care leavers who have become homeless as well as some solutions we hope will be included and change the lives of young people in similar situations.
Homelessness amongst care leavers has increased since the pandemic
One third of care leavers become homeless in the first two years immediately after they leave care. Sadly, our evidence shows that rough sleeping and homelessness amongst care leavers has also worsened since the pandemic as they were particularly vulnerable to volatile housing situations. Sofa surfing was no longer an option, alongside the impact and pressure lockdown had on family breakdown.
In the last two years, New Horizon Youth Centre (who provide housing support to under 25s in London) have seen an increase in care experienced clients, from 24% in 2017-18 to 31% in 2020-21. This is echoed by Homeless Link’s survey in 2021 - services reported the highest increase in care leavers rough sleeping compared to other cohorts (53%).
Why care leavers are more likely to be homeless?
Care leavers often have additional vulnerabilities that make them more likely to be homeless. These are often even more acute if they went into care at an older age, which is happening more frequently. Due to the circumstances that lead to young people entering care, and local authorities’ increased reliance on placing older looked-after children out-of-area, it is common for care leavers to sadly have little or no support network. This means that the lower minimum wage and benefits for under 25s – which assumes support from family in early adulthood – have a disproportionate effect on their finances.
Austerity has also had a significant impact, as well as cuts to mental health funding and early intervention services which means care leavers often do not get the support they need until they reach crisis point, often leading to homelessness. These barriers have all been further exacerbated by the pandemic.
What needs to change?
There are two key areas where we think the Government could make significant changes to help care leavers start their adult lives on the right track and not end up homeless.
As one of our clients told us:
If I’m making an effort to help myself, it is very frustrating to keep hitting brick walls.
1. Extending priority need up to 25 for homeless care leavers
Care leavers aged 18 to 20 automatically have priority need to be deemed homelessness under legislation until they turn 21 and have to prove their vulnerability. However, we see in our case work that local authorities often ask for specific expert evidence of this vulnerability, which can be hard for a care leaver to gather without the help from a housing professional or lawyer. It is unlikely many would know that they can question this decision and how to do so without getting professional help. The vast majority of homeless care leavers aged 21 and over will meet the vulnerability test but have to navigate this additional hurdle at the same time as they are being threatened with homelessness, negotiating with friends to sleep on their sofas or sleeping in the streets. We believe that older care leavers should not be made to prove their vulnerability by taking part in invasive psychiatric assessments, paying their GP for a letter laying out their health issues or recounting their past traumas multiple times to statutory services.
Given the extension of other corporate parenting duties in the Children and Social Work Act 2017 for care leavers up to age 25, it is difficult to understand the need for a cut-off age of 21. Priority need has been abolished in Scotland since 2012 and the Welsh Government is now also considering reforming priority need. In England, the priority need test has recently been extended to survivors of domestic abuse to remove the burden on victims of having to prove they meet the vulnerability need. The same needs to happen for care leavers who by their very nature should be considered vulnerable.
Extending priority need to homeless care leavers over 21 would remove this additional barrier and prevent them ending up homeless and without the entitlements and longer-term, stable accommodation they would be owed under homelessness legislation.
2. Abolish intentionality for homeless care leavers
Another key barrier faced by care leavers is that care leavers can be found to be ‘intentionally homeless’ if they have left accommodation that the local authority deemed suitable, even if they were unhappy with or felt unsafe in the accommodation, fell behind on their rent and got evicted, or if they become homeless as a result of having been in prison. Someone who is deemed intentionally homeless will not be owed a main housing duty by the local authority and will not be supported into long-term accommodation, even if they have priority need otherwise.
Although guidance states that housing services should avoid intentionality decisions for care leavers aged 18-25, there is no clear duty on local authorities to do this and concerns have consistently been raised that intentionality is being used as a way of gatekeeping care leavers. In Wales, in 2019 the Government has ended intentional homelessness for young people under 21 and for care leavers aged 21 to 24. Barnsley council and Greater Manchester Combined Authority have decided not to apply the intentionality criteria to their care leavers. However, care leavers should not be subjected to a postcode lottery on this major barrier to accessing support from housing services.
Care leavers are more likely to be found intentionally homeless, as they often have no support system in place to help them avoid rent arrears for example. In our experience, care leavers often have multiple vulnerabilities and may need accommodation tailored to their specific circumstances, but often do not get a choice or are offered a placement that exacerbates their mental health issues or puts their safety at risk e.g. if they have been involved in gang violence.
Removing the possibility for care leavers to be made intentionally homeless will ensure they get the protections and entitlements that should be afforded to them as care leavers who are homeless and crucially the longer-term accommodation that will enable them to have a secure future.
After a year of submitting evidence and ideas to the Care Review and supporting the young people we work with to do the same, we look forward to its findings and urge the team to include our important recommendations to better protect homeless care leavers.
Download our new briefing ‘Hitting brick walls: barriers faced by homeless care leavers’ to find out more about the barriers faced by care leavers and our recommendations for change.
Written by Natalie Williams, Head of Policy and Public Affairs (Child Rights) at Just for Kids Law