The last year has been an incredibly difficult time for young people all across the country, especially those facing homelessness. My role as Deputy Manager of care leaver services in West London means I have witnessed firsthand the struggles placed on vulnerable young people as they navigate the devastating consequences of the global pandemic.
Centrepoint’s new report, A Year Like No Other, has reflected on the impact of the last year on vulnerable young people; the research looks at youth unemployment, homelessness, poverty and mental health, assessing the impact of the government’s policy interventions during the pandemic.
Since the initial lockdown in March 2020, Centrepoint has seen a 33% increase in demand for our Helpline, suggesting that, despite the significant interventions initiated by the Government, many young people are still struggling to access the support they need. For example, despite the ‘Everyone In’ scheme and the Cold Weather Fund, the Helpline has seen a rising number of callers who are sleeping rough: 17.7% of those who provided information about their housing situation in 2020/21 were rough sleeping at the time of their call. This is slightly higher than 2019/20, where 15% of callers were recorded as sleeping rough.
Alongside statistical data, the report provides insight from interviews with Helpline workers and others, reflecting on trends they have seen across the last year. Helpline staff reported that due to reductions in face-to-face support, young people have faced significant barriers when making formal homelessness applications, and a lack of information or clear guidance about how to make an application has been common. It is particularly worrying that Helpline workers have supported young people who have been told by their local authority to sleep outside, so they can be ‘verified’ by outreach teams to prove they are homeless before they will offer them support.
Furthermore, the report comments on a 15% increase in youth unemployment, with young people facing the highest rates of unemployment of all age groups. This is likely due to the forced closure of retail and hospitality services, which employ a higher percentage of young people. The increase in 16- to 24-year-olds being forced to claim benefits has been particularly stark: there was a 117% increase in the benefit claimant count between February 2020 and February 2021.
Despite the £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit, food insecurity among young people has also increased significantly during the pandemic. The number of young people in our services needing to access Centrepoint’s emergency food support has risen dramatically. As of the beginning of March 2021, the total number of emergency food actions in 2020/21 had reached 553, which is a 276% increase from the previous year.
With soaring youth unemployment and ongoing lockdown restrictions, Centrepoint has also seen an increase in demand for the support provided by its in-house mental health and physical health teams across the country. Young people within our services have particularly struggled with the lockdown periods and the limitations this has placed on social interaction.
Throughout the pandemic, Centrepoint’s in-house mental health team has remained a vital lifeline of support. Since the first lockdown last March they have seen a 40% increase in demand for mental health services. Unfortunately, due to limited capacity, this has resulted in an increase in wait times from two weeks to three months.
Despite the challenges that have been thrown at us, our frontline services have worked tirelessly to ensure that young people can continue to access the support they desperately need. All of our services have remained open throughout the pandemic, despite the many logistical challenges required to keep both staff and young people safe.
For those young people that were unfortunate to contract coronavirus, staff within accommodation services were on hand to provide food and essentials to enable the young person to self-isolate safely. Furthermore, staff continued to provide emotional support for those self-isolating by communicating via video calls and WhatsApp messaging.
The pandemic has in some cases even led to positive changes and new ways of working. The coordination and delivery of PPE and cleaning essentials have helped to alleviate some fears for the housing staff working in our accommodation services. However, this continues to be a trying time for colleagues who have continued to travel into work throughout periods of lockdown and work face-to-face with young people to ensure they deliver the vital support they need.
The provision of individual electronic tablets to all of our services has enabled training courses and team meetings to continue virtually. Moreover, mental health support and learning services for the young people continue to be delivered virtually where possible.
Additional funding was used to improve WIFI in services, which has been critical for young people needing to both study at home and stay entertained during lockdown restrictions. The services I manage also received a grant from a local organisation, which helped to buy items to keep young people stimulated during periods of lockdown; workout equipment, yoga mats and art materials were some examples of items chosen.
Throughout this challenging time, we have continued to work closely with the local authority to ensure that young people can move in and move on from our accommodation services in a COVID-safe way. This has been essential to ensure that we can continue to support as many young people as possible to progress on to independent living, which allows them to move forward with their lives.
It has now been a year since the initial lockdown, and we still have a long way to go before life returns to normal. While there is a light at the end of the tunnel, the last year has taught us the fragility of life and the importance of supporting those who are more vulnerable than we are. It is essential that the Government ring-fences funding for youth specific accommodation and services to give our young people a fighting chance of having a job and a home as they move on into adult life.