We need to find better ways to help young people who are facing poverty and homelessness. It’s too easy to lump together people from different backgrounds and age groups who are experiencing homelessness, even though their situation is affected by different problems and factors. But rather than address the underlying factors of youth homelessness, they’re only being exacerbated by welfare cuts and a lack of understanding.
There’s a growing crisis of youth homelessness in the UK today. According to a report by Homeless Link in 2014, over half of those seeking help with homelessness are under 25. In the same report, charities find homelessness caused by reduction in benefits has increased six-fold and believe sanctions to benefits have affected young people’s ability to access accommodation.
The recent government summer budget (which I’ve written about previously) hit young people hard. Automatic entitlement to housing for those aged 18 to 21 will be removed in 2017 while the same age group will be obliged to “earn or learn” or risk losing benefits. Even though the government has removed the £9,000 cap on tuition fees and scrapped the Education Maintenance Allowance. These are the cuts that explicitly target young people, but the cuts to tax credits will also affect young people further.
Cuts to tax credits will mean two things for young people. First, the cuts to child tax credits: the controversial “two child policy” preventing families from getting benefits for more than two children. This will disadvantage families with three or more children, who will no longer be entitled to tax credits or housing benefits. Second, the cuts to working tax credits which are provided for people whose wages are too low to live on. Cuts to working tax credits will affect young people who are on the bottom rung of the career ladder. This is especially true for young people who are on a zero hours contract and thus don’t know how many hours they will be working in a week. According to a study by the Office for National Statistics, more than a third of people on zero hours contracts are aged 16 to 24.
We need to face up to the systematic unfairness that young people live in. Inequality doesn’t just hurt those directly affected, it hurts everyone, whether that inequality is ethnic, gender based, income based or age based. In our aging society, people are becoming polarised by a generational gap. Young people are the least likely to vote, meaning that their concerns are politically underrepresented. Young people are the leaders of society in waiting and to put them at such a disadvantage so early in life is short sighted, as an investment in young people is an investment in the future.
To end youth homelessness and poverty, we need to address the causes of them. We need to ensure that young people have really affordable accommodation. This means building more houses, not just having a right to buy. It also means affordable education and affordable work. Obligating young people to earn or learn isn’t going to make either of these ventures affordable to them. And it isn’t enough to slash welfare on the basis that people who work should get more than people who don’t. That won’t suddenly make low wages fairer or more proportional to the work done.
In April this year DePaul UK, a homelessness charity based in London, launched a poster campaign to illustrate the misconceptions and reality of homelessness for young people. The posters stretch around street corners. On one side is a paragraph outlining the fears someone might have about taking in a young person who is homeless. On the other side the lines of the paragraph are completed to express the actual experiences of a young person on the streets experiencing loneliness, deprivation and threats of violence. These posters spread a powerful message about how our judgements of young people facing homelessness can affect our behaviour. We need to change people's minds in order to change society. That's why we need to spread the word about campaign's like the one DePaul UK has done, as well as make our opinions known to our representatives in government. You can do this through online petitions such as those on change.org or by writing to your representatives directly via writetothem.