Councils 'failing to house teenagers'

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SOCIAL services departments are failing in their obligation to house homeless 16 and 17-year-olds more than a year after the implementation of legislation to force them to do so. Many authorities are still stuck at the planning stage, a report into the plight of homeless young people has found.

Only one-third of local authorities have increased accommodation for homeless young people as a result of the Children Act. But much of it is unsuitable, with supported lodgings, children's homes and bed-and-breakfast hotels the most common.

More than three-quarters of local authorities also admit they have not even taken steps to discover the extent of the needs of young people in their areas, a clear requirement of the Act.

The only glimmer of hope in the otherwise gloomy picture painted by the report, Plans No Action - The Children Act and Homeless Young People, is that most departments have produced a statement of intent and appointed a co-ordinating officer for young people and voluntary organisations.

But the widespread failure of authorities in their duty under the Act is more disturbing as one of the prime objectives of the legislation was to tackle the problem that 40 per cent of homelessness among 16 and 17-year-olds is directly as a result of leaving care.

Local authorities are obliged by the Act to provide accommodation for any 'child in need' whose welfare is 'seriously prejudiced'. Almost two-thirds of departments accept that homeless 16 and 17- year-olds fall into that category, but nearly one in five do not.

But evidence from departments which took part in the survey by Char, the housing campaign for single people, suggests that 'acceptance' that homeless young people are 'in need' means only that they will be assessed.

Even here, though, the survey reveals that only one-third of departments have any written criteria as to what that means in practice. Rebecca Goldman, the report's author, says however: 'We would argue that homeless 16 and 17-year-olds are clearly 'children in need' whose welfare will be 'seriously prejudiced' if they do not receive accommodation.'

A far bigger failure among local authority social services departments is in their duty to identify the extent to which there are children in need in their area.

Only 25 per cent have carried out an audit of need, with a further 37 per cent still in the planning stage, statistics which highlight the lack of information on which to base the systematic and coherent planning demanded in the Act.

To highlight lack of progress and continuing uncertainty, the report quotes an unnamed social services officer, who said: 'I don't want to create the impression that we have got this sorted out, but what we do have is an acknowledgement from both SSDs (social services departments) and housing departments that there is a joint responsibility. . . The department has agreed in principle to an audit of need being undertaken and a monitoring process being established.

'The big question is: can we translate good intention into action?' he concluded.

Plans No Action - The Children Act and Homeless Young People; Char, 5-15 Cromer Street, London WC1 8LS; free.