Young and sleeping rough | Depaulcharity

Young and sleeping rough | Depaulcharity

Depaul helps people who are homeless, vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Young and sleeping rough

By Graeme McGregor - 16 August 2018


“I got arrested and sent to court. When I was speaking to the probation person in the court, she was telling me: ‘They will probably give you community service.’

“I was like, ‘Please, I can’t do community service. I want to go to jail. I want to know that I have somewhere to stay.’ So I did three weeks [in prison].”


It was difficult to contain my shock as Samantha, the young woman speaking to me, calmly shared this experience with me.

Samantha told me how she first became homeless at 14, after her parents broke up. As a child, she began a seven year journey that many of us - myself included - would find hard to imagine, let alone survive. Between months-long stints of sleeping rough, Samantha’s teenage years were spent moving between friends, family, mental health institutions, squats, foster families and prison.

Eventually, at 21, she was directed to supported accommodation provided by Depaul UK, the youth homelessness charity I work for.

Over two weeks, I met 11 young people across England and heard their experiences of rough sleeping. The interviews are compiled in our new report, Life on the Streets: Young People’s Experiences of Sleeping Rough.

While some young people I spoke to slept rough for a night or two, others lived on the streets for months at a time. One young woman, escaping an abusive relationship, had slept rough for three and a half years. They’re not alone. Government figures indicate that, between 2016 and 2017, the number of young people sleeping rough in England increased by 28 percent.

While each young person’s story was different, there were some common factors. Our previous research shows that, like Samantha, 59 percent of young people in our services became homeless as children: a clear failure by the authorities to recognise children at risk of homelessness and to intervene.

The young people I interviewed had been pushed out of their homes by events beyond their control: the death of a grandparent and primary care-giver; a parent moving into a mental health facility; an abusive parent or partner; a new sibling that pushed a family living in poverty to evict their eldest child. Others went directly from living in care to living on the street. Poverty was the common thread in every story.

While sleeping rough, the young people I met had shown incredible resilience. John, now 22, had lived on the streets with his pregnant girlfriend and his younger brother. He told me, “I tried to get a cash-in-hand job to get some clothes, just to try to pay for some hotels, you know? We stayed in tents. We went to a posh area, but they don’t like us hanging around there.”

Young women in particular spoke to me about their fears while sleeping rough. Paige M explained, “It’s so terrifying. I find myself thinking: ‘I am not going to sleep tonight, I can’t sleep tonight. What were people going to do to us? Am I actually going to wake up in the morning? What happens if someone comes up and kills us?”’ Samantha told me how her legitimate fears as a girl sleeping on the streets led her to dealing drugs: “On the streets you can either be the drug addict or you can be the one providing the drugs. When I was involved in the criminal activities, I had a place to stay. It’s not because I wanted to do it. It’s because I had to.”

When the young people I spoke to turned to the authorities for help, the response was often inadequate. Some received help, while others were turned away without effective support. Others felt that they had been treated with a lack of respect, including Isobel, 19, who was told by a housing officer to buy a pregnancy test and bring back the results, before they would help her.

No young person should be sleeping on the streets, but high rents and discrimination against young people on benefits are barriers to them escaping homelessness. Becky, 23, summed up the consistent problems:

“I’m on the council list. So just waiting on properties at the minute… They will give you a list of private landlords. Obviously I didn’t have money for a private flat. Some of them don’t accept people on benefits. Some of them want a deposit and a bond upfront, which is a grand. Some of them it was [only] over-25s they wanted.”

Compounding this problem is the Shared Accommodation Rate (SAR), the cap placed by government on housing benefit for people renting private rooms in shared homes. Frozen since 2012, the SAR is now drastically below the real cost of private rented accommodation in England, shutting young people on benefits out of rented accommodation. Our research has found that across 40 local authority areas, with 225 young people recorded as sleeping rough, only 57 rooms were available for people receiving the SAR.

This worsening situation is clearly unacceptable. As the government launches its strategy to end rough sleeping by 2028, Depaul UK is calling for the government to bring the SAR back to reality so that it reflects the current cost of renting. At the same time, the government must put more support behind emergency accommodation services, such as the Nightstop network, so that young people don’t have to experience the dangers and damage caused by rough sleeping.

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