So much has been written about the impact of coronavirus and the once-in-a-century challenge it represents to all sections of society. However, while young people appear to be at less physical risk from COVID-19, there is evidence that they are disproportionately affected in a number of key areas. These areas are housing and homelessness; employment and education; and mental health.
We look at how young people are particularly affected by the coronavirus, drawing on recent research, the stories of young people affected, and the experiences of Step by Step frontline staff who have witnessed the impact first-hand.
It is clear that there is a direct link between the pandemic and an increase in youth homelessness. The BBC1 quotes a recent study by Centrepoint, which supports under-25s in England. They have reported a 36% increase in young people seeking support since the start of lockdown, while their helpline has seen a more than 50% increase in the number of calls it receives.
According to the BBC report, other youth charities suggest a similar picture in other parts of the UK. In Wales, Llamau reported a 50% increase in the volume of calls over the last two months, while in Northern Ireland, Housing Rights experienced the same increase in calls.
The increased demand on young people’s charity Step by Step is even more pronounced. Referrals for shared accommodation have increased by around 80% since the beginning of lockdown.
While it’s readily apparent that there is a link between the current public health crisis and an increase in young people experiencing homelessness, what are the reasons for this? Why is coronavirus leading to more young people finding themselves homeless?
Kate Martins, support worker with Step by Step’s Youth AIMS advice service, says: “We’ve seen many young people lose their jobs and no one wants to rent to an unemployed 18 or 19-year-old. Young people who already had few places to go, are being shunned more than ever.”
Those who are staying with friends or family may be forced to leave due to lockdown, shielding or self-isolation.
Ava lived in a foster placement but was forced to leave due to the coronavirus lockdown. Her foster parents are both in their 70s and have a severely disabled daughter, so all were deemed high-risk and had to shield themselves. This meant that Ava could no longer live with them.
Ava was referred to Step by Step for immediate housing. We sourced a placement with another host family and she moved in very quickly. The whole situation has meant a lot of upheaval, particularly as she also had to give up work at a nursery. Ava has shown strength and resilience and sought support from the Step by Step team when it was needed.
Step by Step’s Regional Foyer Manager, Mae Partridge explains why the charity is receiving more referrals, and points to the reduced support available from other providers. “We have experienced an increase in referrals due to heightened fear, anxiety and panic in the general population. Providers are hesitant in accepting new referrals at this time, where it’s advised that social contact is to be limited. We have become one of the only providers who have continued to accept referrals throughout this crisis.”
The government has taken steps to remedy the situation. The Everyone In policy provided £3.2bn of funding to local authorities with the aim of housing rough sleepers throughout the crisis. However, Centrepoint1 suggest this does not cover the newly homeless who find that hotel places are already at capacity and the resources have run dry.
Additionally, because the Everyone In funding is aimed at people who are street homeless, it excludes the largest proportion of people in housing crisis – those experiencing hidden homelessness. This includes people who are sofa-surfing, sleeping in cars or staying in other unstable, temporary accommodation. Research from housing charity Crisis2 suggests that 62% of homeless people are hidden homeless and do not show up in official homelessness statistics.
Young people who are hidden homeless are finding they no longer have even temporary shelter. When someone is fearful for the health of their family, the friend of a friend who has been sleeping on their sofa is no longer their first priority.
Research from the Resolution Foundation3 suggests that youth unemployment could top 1 million this year due to the impact of coronavirus. It predicts that the employment rate for lower skilled workers – of which young people make up a high proportion – could drop by 37%. It found that a third of young people have lost work as a result of COVID-19.
A study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies4 paints a similarly bleak picture. It found that young workers have been hit the hardest by lockdown as they are 2.5 times more likely to work in a sector that is shut down compared to other age groups. Indeed, 30% of young people work in sectors that have been closed, meaning they are much more likely to lose work.
This certainly reflects what is being seen at South of England-based Step by Step.
“The majority of young people tend to work in the retail and hospitality industries, which were closed early on,” says Kelly Giles, Supported Lodgings Manager. “Several of the young people we support needed to claim Universal Credit again, which was a real setback for those who had done so well to secure jobs. Many lost their jobs because they were on zero hours contracts and have been left deflated and worried about their finances.”
Chloe worked in the hospitality industry. She was told by her employer to claim Universal Credit or carry on working, as she was not eligible for furlough.
Chloe did not want to go onto benefits as she would see it as a step back in the progress she made. Therefore, she carried on working, despite being at high risk from coronavirus in a public-facing role.
When the government closed pubs and restaurants, Chloe became unemployed. Not wanting to rely on Universal Credit, she has now found employment in a pharmacy where social distancing can be practiced and she is less at risk.
There is, of course, a tangible relationship between loss of income and lower standards of living. And key services who might be able to help, such as foodbanks, are themselves in crisis. “There is a serious lack of food donations and supplies to foodbanks,” says Step by Step’s Kelly Giles. “They have also been running with limited capacity due to low numbers of volunteers and the fear of spreading the virus.”
While there have been local initiatives to help with food supplies, these have been primarily aimed at elderly people and those who are sick.
In terms of education, many young people now find they cannot attend college. While many are still able to learn remotely, this requires the use of a computer and internet that not all have access to. These young people are no longer accessing the bursary lunches they are entitled to at college, meaning they have to pay for another meal each day.
Missing out on college also means missing out on important social interaction, and a sense of achievement and direction.
With worry about falling ill, the stress from having nowhere to live and the anxiety of unemployment and financial insecurity, it is inevitable that young people’s mental health will be negatively impacted by the pandemic. Recent studies shine a light on just how severe this impact has been.
Youth mental health charity Young Minds5 conducted a survey of young people with a history of mental health problems. 83% of respondents said the pandemic had worsened their mental health, with 32% considering their mental health ‘much worse’. Young Minds identified a number of key reasons for this downturn in mental wellbeing, including concerns about their family’s health, the closure of schools and universities, a loss of routine, and a loss of social connection.
It is no surprise, therefore, that psychiatrists and psychologists writing in The Lancet Psychiatry6 identify young people as a vulnerable group. They say that: “Children, young people, and families will be affected by school closures. They might also be affected by exposure to substance misuse, gambling, domestic violence and child maltreatment, absence of free school meals, accommodation issues and overcrowding, parental employment, and change and disruption of social networks.”
Meanwhile, the NSPCC7 have reported that almost 7,000 COVID-19-related counselling sessions have taken place with children and young people via Childline. They found an increase in the proportion of calls regarding mental health and wellbeing.
The negative impact on mental health has also been witnessed by Step by Step staff who have continued to work directly with young people throughout the crisis.
Kelly Giles, Supported Lodgings Manager, says: “At an age where so many rely on friendships, social interaction and group activities for their everyday life to function, lockdown has been exceptionally difficult for all young people. For those at Step by Step, who are already separated or have estranged relationships from their own families as well, it has been exceptionally tough.”
Calvin worked in construction but was unable to work once lockdown started. He wasn’t sure where he stood in terms of employment and whether he would be furloughed.
This uncertainty caused him a great deal of anxiety and he found the situation very stressful. His mental health declined severely as a result. Calvin required a lot of support with his mental wellbeing and to find emotional stability again.
Fortunately, he is now back at work and mentally back on track.
The impact on young people’s mental health has been the most notable area of concern for staff at Step by Step. The immediate change and lack of control over it, the isolation from familiar people, the financial pressures, and the uncertainty of what was happening, have had a severe impact on several young people. This has led to an increase in those presenting with mental health issues and incidences of very low mood and self-harm.
This experience is echoed by Kate Martins, support worker at Youth AIMS. “I’ve seen a lot of young people’s mental health deteriorate. Going from a routine to suddenly no routine has been a huge adjustment for many. We aim to put young people on the road to recovery and it is such a shame to see them lose momentum.”
Step by Step is fortunate in that it can continue to operate during the coronavirus crisis. We still work to empower young people and help them break the cycle of homelessness for good. Our mission has not faltered despite new, unprecedented challenges.
We received an incredible response to our COVID-19 Emergency Appeal, resulting in over £90,000 to help us continue to offer front-line support to young people at a time they need it the most. This has been used to rehouse young people who were living with hosts who had to self-isolate, pay for emergency supplies, cover the cost of agency staff when Step by Step staff have fallen ill, to buy games and activities for young people facing lockdown boredom, and for so much more.
The areas of need referenced in this article reflect the three pillars of our services: accommodation and housing support; personal development and training; and mental health counselling. We adamantly believe that all three of these areas need to be addressed in order for a young person to have a chance at the bright future they deserve.
Medical studies have shown that coronavirus is more damaging to those with underlying health conditions; it could be argued that coronavirus is also more damaging to those with underlying social and mental health issues. How can a young person follow government advice to stay at home if they have nowhere to call home? How can a young person bounce back from losing a job they have worked so hard to achieve? And how can those who already experience poor mental health cope with this unprecedented uncertainty and upheaval?
It is no coincidence that this article has referenced the research and work of a number of charities. It is the third sector that is plugging gaps in provision, working tirelessly and often without thought for personal safety to support the young people who represent the future of this country.
Already some are calling young people the “COVID generation”. But young people deserve more than to be defined by the current crisis. They should instead be recognised for their strength, resilience and potential, even if they do need an extra helping hand at this most difficult of times.