Why is the rate of homelessness amongst care leavers* so high? This is a question we should be asking ourselves when thinking about the problematic housing process for young people leaving care. According to a report from Just for Kids Law: “Depending on their exact care leaver status, many young people who were in care before turning 18 are entitled to support to achieve their long-term goals from their local authority until the age of 25, including a dedicated Personal Advisor, various financial allowances, a safety net should things go wrong with their accommodation, and priority access to homelessness support.” And yet, thousands of young care leavers face homelessness each year and are not given the support they are entitled to by their local authority. Care leavers can be as young as 18 and are rarely voluntarily made aware of their rights and entitlements which can lead to complications such as homelessness and support issues after they turn 18.
Recently, other campaigners and I at Just for Kids Law met with Children’s Minister Vicky Ford and the Rough Sleeping & Housing Minister Eddie Hughes to speak on the issues that young care leavers face when trying to access housing. There was a diverse array of experiences shared – some were positive but most shared having negative experiences of accessing housing when leaving care. One care leaver shared that their Personal Advisor closed their case without any final meeting or discussion and did this via email, which left them feeling abandoned and confused as there was no further conversation on how the young person was to move forward in their life. Another young person shared that once they had moved into their independent accommodation, they were left to put all of their furniture together alone as they had no friend or family support. They mentioned that it took them a substantial amount of time to fix their bed, wardrobes and gas appliances which could have been dangerous had anything gone wrong.
You might also be surprised to know that there is no minimum standard for what a care leaver’s accommodation should look like. To many care leavers, this can be a shock to the system because it can mean that allocated accommodation could be potentially unsafe but still deemed technically appropriate. This has been seen in cases where a young person lives in squalor in placements where mattresses and furniture are beaten to a pulp, but a checklist still deems them fine. Or a placement not having electricity and heating but a roof over a young person’s head is seen as enough. Young people I have spoken to express their concerns of a lack of accountability taken towards their unfair living circumstances. One care leaver told me: “I was left in a placement with asbestos and mould for four years, I suffered from asthma and that asthma got severely worst due to [the] conditions.”
The common starting point for all the issues shared seemed to be when young people took on the status of care leaver as they have been deemed fit to move into full independence. This is when the local authority reduces their responsibilities in caring for a young person by withdrawing financial support, cutting supportive contact and expecting the young person to handle all their affairs independently. Having listened to the common experiences of other care leavers, there are too many issues which have worsened due to a young person having to self-advocate because of a lack of information about what rights they have and the support they should be able to access as a care leaver.
In October 2021, the mental health charity Mind reported that: "Housing and mental health are often linked. Poor mental health can make it harder to cope with housing problems while being homeless or having problems in your home can make your mental health worse.” They also noted that “Environmental issues such as damp, mould, and dirt can make you physically unwell. If you don't have access to cooking or washing facilities you might find it hard to eat healthily, exercise and take care of yourself. Experiencing physical illnesses can impact your mental health.” This could be why the rate of homelessness amongst care leavers is so high. The experiences of the young people I have spoken to reflect Mind’s findings to a tee. If there is evidence showing that negative environmental issues can directly impact mental health, why are some of the most vulnerable young people being exposed to this?
The Government are currently undertaking an independent review of the children’s social care system where policies and procedures will be looked at and the voices of care leavers will influence policy change to ensure the safety, security and future of children under the care of local authorities. As part of this, we can’t lose sight of the importance of making sure that young people are able to access safe and supportive housing.
In conclusion, young people have voiced that change needs to be made, industry professionals have voiced that change needs to be made to prevent future care leavers from traumatic experiences and reports show that it has been acknowledged that young people have been failed and action needs to be taken for change to be made.
* The legal definition of a care leaver comes from The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 which states that a Care Leaver is someone who has been in the care of the Local Authority for a period of 13 weeks or more spanning their 16th birthday.
I Angel Beddelem is a campaigner with Just for Kids Law and a budding journalist whose work can be found at Inayiabeddelem1.journoportfolio.com