Now even graduates are sleeping rough

Youth homelessness may not have the power to grab the headlines but we cannot afford to ignore it
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The Independent Online
It was reported the other day that one out of 10 young people living in London hostels for the homeless is a graduate. This piece of information ought to stir us a bit. It suddenly challenges the stereotype of the young homeless as a feckless fringe, products of families living on the margins of society, people whom it is only too easy to ignore. Nowadays even a good education may be insufficient to earn you a permanent roof over your head.

Youth homelessness is a serious problem spreading through all sectors of society. But the malady is largely hidden. There are no national statistics. What we know is fragmentary and comes from local surveys around the country undertaken by voluntary bodies or local authorities.

But for some years now it has been possible to see, late at night, young people sleeping out on our streets. Yet rough sleepers may account for only about a tenth of all homeless young people; all the young people living in hostels or bed and breakfast, squatting or constantly moving from one friend's mattress on the floor to another - all these are homeless, too. As to the size of the problem, two local surveys from very different areas of the country provide a snapshot. In Oldham, a northern industrial town with redundant cotton mills, a 1995 survey of two hundred 16 to 25- year-olds found that 45 per cent had experienced homelessness.

Yet youth homelessness is an old problem that once disappeared. It scarcely existed in the Fifties and Sixties when young people got married at a much younger age than they had before or have done since. But whether they married early or went off to university the pathways from dependence at 16 to independence at 25 were clearly marked and reliable

Now the routes are often uncertain and sometimes dangerous. Today, many young people leave their families precipitously and start the journey to independence totally unprepared. The arrival of a step-parent at home may be the trigger. There may be family rows exacerbated by financial factors such as unemployment for the parents or of the young person, or loss of child benefit at 16. Worse still there may have been abuse.

So the first cause of youth homelessness, the first failure, is that the family works less well than it did in launching its young into the world. And all this is compounded in the case of children in care. They must leaveby the age of 18, though two-thirds of them have to face life alone by their 17th birthday. Moreover, while a family may provide a shelter from the storm to which an absent son or daughter may go back from time to time, those who were once in care cannot return - which is why between a fifth and a half of all young homeless people were once in care.

A second malfunction is the economy itself as a provider of both remunerative work for young people and of affordable housing. Having left home, or care, it is hard to find a job. The unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year- olds is about l6 per cent, roughly twice the national average. And that is on the official figures. But as the Government's statistics exclude unemployed people not receiving benefits, which is the case for most 16- year-old and 17-year-olds, the true proportion is even higher.

Pay rates, too, are low for young people, rising from about 35 per cent of average earnings for under 18-year-olds to 75 per cent for 2l to 24- year-olds. At the same time, rents for privately owned properties have been rising faster than inflation, partly because those young people who are able to find well-paid work are less likely than formerly to buy their own place, preferring to rent until the property market stabilises. Thus a young person nowadays needs about pounds l,000 for deposit and rent in advance and yet is quite likely to be earning less than pounds 8,000 a year.

A third failure is the social security system. The helping hand of the state is no longer held out so generously along the way from dependence to independence. The Government has withdrawn or reduced benefits as an act of social policy rather than economy; it believes that young people should either have jobs which are sufficiently well-paid to provide them with the accommodation they require, or they should continue to live in the parental home. Thus 16 and 17-year-olds must attend a Youth Training Scheme for which they receive an allowance of pounds 29.50 to pounds 35 per week; there is no benefit if they drop out, as many do. And benefits for 18 to 24-year-olds are set at 79 per cent of the allowance given to 25-year- olds and older. As far as public housing goes, local authorities and housing associations give low priority to young single people; a fifth of councils simply will not include young single people on their waiting lists.

The upshot is that in this country there are 200,000 or so young people without a proper roof over their heads at any one time and the total is growing. And it is a deteriorating situation. The longer young people are homeless, the more health problems they have. A Children's Home survey of vulnerable young people living on their own found that a third had eaten only one meal or no meals at all during the previous 24 hours. And a minority, too, finally turn to petty crime.

Beyond altering the dynamics of family life or the operation of the economy, what can be done? I am chairing an inquiry commissioned by 10 charities. So far as I can see, the sort of actions that could make the greatest difference would be to:

Reverse the cuts in benefits for young people - the cost of living for the unemployed is the same whether you are below or above the age of 25.

Put a lot of work into preparing young people leaving care for the harsh world outside. They need transitional support. They are put out into the world by 18 whereas the average age for leaving the parental home is 22.

Support education initiatives such as the interesting "peer" education project in Newcastle where young people with experience of homelessness talk to young people who have not yet left home or care. They tell them about housing rights and opportunities and generally help them prepare for the journey from dependence to independence.

But, most of all, the seriousness of the issue has to be recognised. Social problems constantly come up into the headlines and then as swiftly disappear, their novelty value exhausted. Last week it was curfews for kids. What will it be tomorrow? It won't be the young homeless. We have become too used to them. The consequences of such blindness may cost us dear.

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