A disturbing figure quoted by The Guardian1 suggests that 1 in 4 young care leavers find themselves homeless at 18 years old. This is a statistic we should be deeply concerned about as a society. Something is clearly going wrong.
What are the challenges young people face when leaving the care system and what support is available to them? Why are so many ending up homeless?
The Department for Education2 uses the term “looked after children” to refer to those under the age of 18 in care. As of March 2019, there were 78,150 looked after children in the UK, up 4% on the previous year. The majority of these (75%) are looked after under a care order, where a court places a child in the care or supervision of a local authority. In 18% of cases, a parent agrees to a child being taken into care. Only 7% of those in care are placed for adoption, and this is falling each year.
The reasons for a child or young person going into care are numerous, but abuse or neglect are the most common, accounting for 63% of cases. Other reasons include family dysfunction, absent parents or parental illness. It is easy to appreciate that these are some of the most vulnerable young people in society, with diminished life chances and in need of support beyond the age of 18.
According to the BBC3, around 10,000 young people leave care each year. The challenges they experience when having to fend for themselves for perhaps the first time are numerous and considerable.
The charity Become4, which supports young people in care and leaving care, describes what it calls the “Care Cliff”. This refers to the challenges and pitfalls care leavers face. Young people usually not ready to live independently and often find themselves in unsuitable or dangerous accommodation. They do not have the financial support they require or the social network to assist them. A concerning number of these young people end up homeless, either immediately upon leaving care or later when they struggle with the lack of support available to them.
Centrepoint’s5 survey of care leavers quantifies those who end up homeless, suggesting that 26% have sofa surfed and 14% have slept rough.
These findings are borne out by the experience of youth homelessness charity Step by Step. It has seen a huge increase in care leavers referred to its Supported Lodgings service, which places homeless young people with host families. 39% of the young people it places are care leavers, versus 23% the previous year, suggesting that not only are a high proportion of homeless young people care leavers, but that this proportion has seen recent growth.
Potential homelessness is not the only challenge faced by those leaving care. They often have poor independent living skills and a lack of knowledge around managing money – when in care, their finances are looked after by a social worker and they are given a personal allowance. Therefore, they have no experience of paying rent, bills and meeting other financial obligations.
Kelly Giles, Supported Lodgings Manager at Step by Step, highlights some of the social issues faced. “Forming long-term meaningful and healthy relationships is challenging for some of those leaving care. This is due to the inconsistency of key relationships in their childhood, either with their parents or care placements. This leads to a lack of trust towards adults and perceived authority figures.”
It is understandable that many of these young people exhibit challenging and self-destructive behaviour. This is linked to abandonment and attachment issues where their basic needs have not been met. The self-destructive behaviour can manifest itself in sabotaging relationships and opportunities, testing boundaries and putting themselves in risky situations.
Kate Martins, Support Worker for Step by Step’s Youth AIMS advice service, puts this succinctly. “Care leavers seem to be the ones who need the most intensive support. I can’t begin to imagine how their early years impact them, but it’s easy to understand why they are chaotic.”
A lack of basic life skills, no financial acumen, mental health issues and challenging behaviour can themselves lead to homelessness. Taking these factors into account, it is not hard to appreciate that even care leavers who do not immediately find themselves homeless, could end up without a roof over their heads further down the line.
Matt was put into care and became a Looked After Child after he was deemed at risk. His mother was a drug user and seller, and Matt had witnessed domestic violence throughout his childhood. Matt mixed with drug using young people while in care and became a cannabis user himself. He was not in education or employment.
However, Matt was more fortunate than a lot of young care leavers and was given a placement with Step by Step’s Supported Lodgings service. He moved in with a host family who could not only give him a stable place to live, but the everyday support he needed to turn his life around.
With the support of his host family and a Step by Step Support Worker, Matt stopped using drugs and got back into education. He was keen on rugby and gained coaching and refereeing qualifications. He now plays for two local rugby teams, which has given him a new healthier social network, and he is continuing his studies.
Matt would not have had access to this support if he had moved directly to independent living after leaving care.
In 2018, the Department for Education6 announced a major change in how it classified young people in care. It extended councils’ duty of care to care leavers up to the age of 25. While young people still left care at 18, they could expect several more years of support with access to Personal Advisors to assist them as they assimilated into the adult world.
However, while the Children’s Commissioner7 sees this as a welcome change, it feels the legislation does not go far enough. The young people’s advocate would like to see this extension of support reflected across all policy areas, including housing need.
Additionally, The Guardian1 notes that no extra funding was given by central government to fund the extra years of support. This hobbles a council’s ability to deliver on the government’s much-touted announcement.
More recently, the Government has protected care leavers during the COVID-19 epidemic by stating that no one has to leave care during the crisis. However, the charity Become4 points out that it is unknown how long this support will continue, and when it ends, there will be large numbers of young people leaving care who are more vulnerable than ever due to the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health.
The key players in the youth homelessness sector have robust, actionable ideas to help prevent homelessness in young care leavers.
The Children’s Commissioner8 is calling for care leavers to be paid the higher rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit from the age of 18, rather than waiting until they are 25. This means more financial support at the point of leaving care and when they are trying to get themselves established.
The Commissioner would also like to see the halting of benefit sanctions for care leavers. This group are five times more likely to be sanctioned than other claimants, often due to their lack of financial awareness or their lack of a support network that can supply childcare, for example.
Care leavers are already at a disadvantage without being punished for the chaotic circumstances they find themselves in.
The charity Step by Step has further suggestions for supporting vulnerable care leavers. It would like to see the changes of the last few years continued and built upon, with all care leavers able to access housing support without the current stipulation that they need to have a local connection to the area. Currently, a young person arriving in a new area is at a distinct disadvantage in accessing this vital support.
Those leaving care should also be exempt from paying council tax up to the age of 25. While the government does recommend this exemption, it is left to the discretion of individual councils as to whether they implement this or not. Making it law, rather than a recommendation, would protect more vulnerable young people from this considerable financial burden.
With its focus on empowering young people for a successful future, Step by Step also suggests more life skills education for children. This could start from the age of 13 so that by the time they leave care they are much more prepared for the transition to living independently.
Those in care could also be given more responsibilities from a younger age, giving them a sense of control over their lives and further preparing them for the challenges that await. Because of their legal duty of care, Children’s Services are forced to operate in a very risk-adverse way, not letting children learn from mistakes or act with independence. Therefore, it can be a real shock to a young person who leaves care and finds themselves with overwhelming freedom and independence.
It is evident that many care leavers find themselves thrust into a daunting and complex world without the support they need to succeed. This can lead to an array of challenges, both financial and social, and in around a quarter of cases leads to homelessness. These young people are already vulnerable, let down by family or other adults and then, ultimately, let down by the state. Surely it is these young people, who emerge from the care system already at a disadvantage, already with their life chances eroded, that are entitled to the most support.
There are things that can be done, steps the government can take to make a difference. It shouldn’t be left to charities to advocate for, give a voice to and support young people that society as a whole has a responsibility towards.
These young people are the future of our society. Why can’t we do better by them?