Just for Kids Law calls for Government to protect young care leavers from homelessness with stronger safeguards

5 May 2022

Today, Just for Kids Law publishes a new report ‘Hitting brick walls: barriers faced by homeless care leavers’, in collaboration with New Horizon Youth Centre and Youth Legal.

The report calls for stronger safeguards to protect young care leavers from homelessness. It includes crucial insight from care leavers who have become homeless, and tangible solutions the Government could deploy to help change the lives of young people in similar situations, ahead of the Independent Care Review publishing its final recommendations to Government later this month.

Even before the pandemic, one third of care leavers became homeless in the first two years immediately after leaving care and our report shows that Covid 19 has further exacerbated rough sleeping and homelessness among this group. In the last two years, New Horizon (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. Similarly, in Homeless Link’s survey in 2021, services reported the highest increase in care leavers rough sleeping compared to other cohorts (53%).

There are two key areas where the Government could make simple changes to help care leavers start their adult lives on the right track in line with other provisions they provide for care leavers up to 25:

1. Extending priority need up to 25 for homeless care leavers

Care leavers aged 18-20 automatically have ‘priority need’ (an assessment of vulnerability) until they turn 21 and have to prove their vulnerability. Although the vast majority of homeless care leavers aged 21 and over will meet the vulnerability test, local authorities often ask for specific expert evidence of this vulnerability.

This can be especially hard for a care leaver to gather without help from a housing professional or lawyer, while also likely negotiating with friends to sleep on their sofas or sleeping in the streets. To prove their vulnerability, older care leavers can often be forced to pay their GP for a letter laying out their health issues, take part in invasive psychiatric assessments, or recount their past traumas multiple times to statutory services.

Extending priority need to homeless care leavers over 21 would remove this unnecessary barrier and prevent them ending up homeless and without the entitlements and longer-term, stable accommodation they would be owed under homeless legislation.

2. Abolish intentionality for homeless care leavers

Care leavers can also be found to be ‘intentionally homeless’ if they have left accommodation that the local authority deemed suitable, even if they felt unsafe in the accommodation or fell behind on their rent and got evicted. Without the same support networks, rent arrears can often build up. Someone deemed intentionally homeless will not be supported into long-term accommodation.

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 we see intentionality used as a way of gatekeeping care leavers.

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.

Louise King, Policy and Campaigns Director at Just for Kids Law, said:

“The Independent Care Review is an important opportunity for the Government to reimagine a care system that supports young care leavers to have a stable future.

“It’s unreasonable to make young care leavers in crisis jump through unnecessary administrative hoops to prove their vulnerability and it’s absurd to withhold support to young people for being “intentionally homelessness placing them at risk.”

“After a year of sharing ideas and evidence with the Care Review and supporting the young people we work with to do the same, we urge the team to include our practical proposals to ensure homeless care leavers receive the protection and support they need.”

Phil Kerry, CEO of New Horizon Youth Centre, said:

“So many of the young people presenting to New Horizon for support around their homelessness or sleeping rough have leaving care status. Already often traumatised, we see daily how this contributes to further hardship.

“While we work closely with local authorities to prevent and solve this, more structural responses are needed. We particularly call on Government to extend automatic priority need to under-25 with care leaving status as a crucial safeguard in helping them give their potential a home.”

Valerie Clark, Director of Youth Legal, said:

“Every day we see care leavers who are homeless or inappropriately housed. Access to young person-friendly legal advice can be crucial for many of these young people in order to challenge the unlawful gatekeeping and failure to uphold their rights which has become endemic within local authority housing and homelessness services.

“Extending priority need up to age 25 and abolishing intentionality would be simple measures that would help turn the tide for homeless care leavers and remove some of the barriers to the basic right to stable accommodation.”

Notes to editor

The Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002 requires housing authorities to secure that accommodation is available for an applicant if they have reason to believe that the applicant may be homeless, eligible for assistance and have a priority need. Priority need categories includes care leavers up to 21 and a person aged 21 or more who is vulnerable as a result of having been looked after, accommodated or fostered.

Priority need has been altogether abolished in Scotland since 2012. The Welsh Government is now also considering reforming priority need. In England, Oldham council have a pledge that care leavers up to the age of 25 will be considered automatically in priority need and not intentionally homeless.

In England, the priority need test has also recently been extended to survivors of domestic abuse.

Given the new duties in the Children and Social Work Act 2017 extending support to care leavers to age 25, and the extension of the Shared Accommodation Rate exemption to all care leavers up to 25, it is difficult to understand the need for a cut-off age of 21 for care leavers in relation to priority need.

Section 191 of the Housing Act 1996 sets out the criteria for how people can become intentionally homeless.

In 2019, the Welsh Government ended intentional homelessness for young people under 21 and for care leavers aged 21-24. In England, Barnsley Council and Greater Manchester Combined Authority have also decided not to apply the intentionality criteria to their care leavers.

About Just for Kids Law

Just for Kids Law is a UK charity that works with and for children and young people to hold those with power to account and fight for wider reform by providing legal representation and advice, direct advocacy and support, and campaigning to ensure children and young people in the UK have their legal rights and entitlements respected and promoted and their voices heard and valued.

About New Horizon Youth Centre

New Horizon Youth Centre supports thousands of young people across London facing homelessness because of family breakdown, domestic abuse, poverty, experiences of violence, or war and persecution in their home country.

They provide a vital support network for 16–24-year-olds with nowhere else to go. Through services provided at their daycentre, remotely and via outreach they help young people experiencing homelessness in London to improve their wellbeing and safety, change their economic circumstances and find somewhere that they can call home. For as long as young people are homeless and vulnerable in London, New Horizon will be on a mission to give their potential a home. Find out more: www.nhyouthcentre.org.uk

About Youth Legal

Youth Legal is an independent charity based in Wandsworth, assisting marginalised and vulnerable young people across the London area. We facilitate young people’s access to justice through high quality young person-friendly legal advice, support and education. Our specialist legal advice in Housing, Community Care, Debt and Money Advice and Immigration is focused on fighting for children and young people to be safe and secure, with appropriate housing.

Case studies

Just for Kids Law case study

Joseph’s story – A vulnerable care leaver found intentionally homeless

Joseph* arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied child. He is now a care leaver and has a physical disability and mental health issues. When he was 18, Joseph lost his placement in supported housing after assaulting a staff member. Joseph told us that he was mistreated by the staff there because he was a refugee. Upon being evicted, he applied to his local authority as homeless and was provided with interim accommodation whilst his application was being processed. However, housing services then found him to be intentionally homeless, thus putting him at risk of losing his interim accommodation and ineligible for any further support. Thankfully evictions were banned at this point during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was our housing solicitor’s opinion that under the current legislation Joseph did not have grounds to challenge this decision. Instead, Joseph’s personal advisor eventually agreed to provide Joseph with accommodation that was suitable to his restricted mobility needs.

*not his real name

New Horizon Youth Centre case study

Joshua’s story – A vulnerable care leaver not deemed to be priority need

Joshua* has been known to his local authority since he was a child. He was put into care and placed into hostel accommodation at 16, after a breakdown in family relationships. Though Joshua remained in local authority accommodation for several years, he was in and out of prison and mental health hospitals between the ages of 18 and 21 and had to be moved out of borough due to safeguarding risks. When he turned 21, the local authorities attempted to close his case but he was supported by New Horizon Youth Centre to retain leaving care support.

From the age of 21, Joshua faced several periods of prolonged homelessness and rough sleeping. He did not receive appropriate support from his local authority who also challenged whether he was in ‘priority need’. Eventually the local authority argued that they would support him via their mental health pathway but he was considered too high risk for a number of initiatives. Aged 23, Joshua still spent a long period homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches and walking around all night.

Throughout this period, New Horizon Youth Centre appealed several times for his local authority to accommodate Joshua but they stated they were unable to find a suitable place. Finally, aged 24 Joshua had to go to a mental health hospital again and on his release his local authority placed him in temporary accommodation. He is now awaiting a hostel place.

* not his real name

Youth Legal case study

Billal’s story – A vulnerable care leaver aged 21 deemed not to have priority need

Billal* arrived in the UK in 2015 as an unaccompanied asylum seeking child (UASC) and initially went into foster care. After turning 18, Billal had to leave an unsuitable placement and started sofa surfing. He was not able to continue with his education and was in and out of contact with his Youth Legal caseworker and solicitor.

Eventually Billal completed a homelessness application and was placed in temporary accommodation, which he then lost after leaving to go to visit his sister in a refugee camp abroad. On his return, Billal went back to sofa surfing and made a new homelessness application.

After being assessed by housing services, he was not found to have priority need: although he was a care leaver, by then he had turned 21. He was merely offered assistance from the local authority’s rent deposit scheme to secure housing from the private rented sector, despite his background as a UASC, not speaking English very well and having been homeless since leaving care at 18.

Billal’s housing solicitor requested a review of this decision as they deemed he did have priority need due to his vulnerability. They asked for Billal to be put in interim accommodation and for the local authority to accept a main housing duty and provide him with social housing. The review decision still found Billal not to have priority need.

*not his real name