Recently, BBC Three broadcast a documentary about young people who are homeless, called ‘Where Am I Sleeping Tonight’. The director, Martin Reed, lived on the streets himself when he was 16. In Martin’s hometown of Bristol an estimated 25% of young people will experience some form of homelessness. But even though it touches the lives of so many people, youth homelessness is still considered a “hidden problem”.
Martin meets young people who have adapted to homelessness in various ways. Some stay in the caves and forests around Bristol. Others sofa surf or just sleep wherever they can. Their stories are different but they share share similar obstacles. When you’re homeless, it’s very difficult if not impossible to fulfill the Job Centre’s requirements of showing up to appointments and looking for work. After all, you don’t have access to a computer and you may not have what you need to look presentable at a job interview. This leads to being sanctioned, and having your benefits stopped. If you can get a job, it may well be a zero hour contract, meaning that you can’t plan for the future or save enough money for accommodation.
Some people are given accommodation by the council but prefer to stay on the streets. One of the people in the documentary, Anthony, is in this position. But he prefers to stay on the streets for fear of being relentlessly bullied in the hostel he’s been allocated. He has tried to take his own life twice, and at one point he says, “The life I’ve lived, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.”
Despite the fact that he sleeps rough, Anthony is classed as a “cared-for child”. His story of family violence is heart wrenching, but Anthony seems to largely blame himself for the position he’s in. Martin can appreciate Anthony’s story; he knows people who have gotten themselves arrested just because they prefer a prison cell to a hostel room. Hostels can be violent, depressing places, especially for young people.
Another person, Daisy, has been sofa surfing for nine months. After dropping out of University, she couldn’t claim benefits because she already had a grant. Without an income, having left home due to a strained relationship with her parents, she is supported by her friends. While she hasn’t yet had to sleep on the streets, she can spend most of the night looking for a sofa to sleep on. She sometimes has to rely on people she barely knows, and has been in unsafe or compromising situations. She faces low wage temporary positions and zero hour contracts, which leave her without enough to afford even cheap accommodation.
Young people have to deal with pressures like staggering University debts, low wages, inaccessible house prices and a pervasive attitude that if they’re poor or unemployed they must be lazy or ungrateful. As a twenty something, I can relate. For any young person who’s aware of what they have to look forward to, it can feel like poverty is the sword of Damocles hanging over them, suspended by a frayed payslip. Far from this fear spurring young people on to succeed, it can put an even bigger dent in their self-esteem. At New Hope, a lot of our work involves building people up and helping them to regain the confidence they’ve lost.
Many of the people in the documentary help each other out. One person, Vince, talks about the people he stays with being his “homeless family”, saying that they have done more for him than the council by sharing food and giving him advice on how to sleep safely. The young people in the documentary aren’t lazy, they’re doing everything they can to survive. Most of the people that Martin met weren’t registered as homeless by the government for various reasons. Because they sofa surf, or because they were offered a room in a hostel, or because they don’t have the faith in their council to register as homeless.
What these stories show is that not enough is being done to support those who are unlucky enough to fall through society’s cracks. Benefit sanctions, zero hour contracts and hostel conditions are driving young people into homelessness. For some, this will be temporary, but for others it could lead to a lifetime of suffering. People who are homeless quickly learn to survive day by day, making it difficult to return to a stable life. Part of the reason for this lack of proper support is that the legal definition of ‘homeless’ doesn’t extend to people who sofa surf, refuse accommodation or who just don’t wish to be found, although for some there are no other options.
At the end of the documentary, some of the young people were hopeful of going back to school, or getting registered for support. But hidden homelessness among young people continues to rise. At the current rate of increase, in 5 years a million people under 25 will be homeless in the UK. I hope that this documentary and others will be a wake up call to society, showing how much still needs to be done.