For young people growing up in Britain today, two major challenges stand out. The first is finding, and keeping, a secure and affordable place to live. A critical lack of homes for social rent, high costs of renting in the private sector, all combine to make it harder than ever for young people to access long term accommodation.
At the same time, serious youth violence is never far from the headlines. While youth gangs and criminal exploitation are nothing new, rates of violence have reached record levels and practitioners are developing understandings of forms of organized crime for which the targeting and exploitation of vulnerable children and adults is central.
Our study, featuring interviews and focus groups with young people and practitioners, found that violence and crime affects young people at every stage in their journey through homelessness. From losing accommodation, to being targeted while homeless, through to being unable to access housing and opportunities, the impacts of violence and exploitation on young people is massive.
1. Young people can lose accommodation due to youth violence.
Many of the young people supported by Centrepoint told us how involvement in crime and youth violence led to them losing a place to live. Becoming involved in criminal activity or gangs can often lead to family breakdown, and practitioners reported cases of young people having to run away due to threats of violence against them and their family.
One young man, Tony, was made to leave his family home after his mum felt that his involvement in low level criminal activity became too much to handle. Without knowing where to access support, and concerned for the safety of his younger siblings, Tony’s family felt they had no choice but to ask him to leave.
He is now receiving support through Centrepoint and wants to use his experiences to advise other young people in similar situations. "I feel like some people get a thrill out of these things", he says. "But no one gets a thrill out of being homeless".
Young people and practitioners reported how a lack of affordable accommodation made it extremely difficult for young people and families affected by youth violence to find alternate housing, and different councils often didn't see them as being in priority need for a move.
2. Gangs and exploiters target the vulnerable.
Just like children’s homes and pupil referral units, practitioners told us how gangs and exploiters would identify homeless hostels and the vulnerable residents inside. They would approach with offers of ‘free’ items (such as alcohol or cannabis), entrapping young people with debts that would have to then be paid off.
"You’re targets both for robbery and recruitment" says Lucy, a former resident who took part in the research. "If you’re doing something for yourself, and someone finds out, they’ll come and rob you. If you’re struggling, looking for a way out, and someone sees that you’re vulnerable, sees that you’re easy to exploit, they’ll strike up a friendship...I saw it too many times, too much of it."
3. Poverty and isolation while homeless puts young people at increased risk.
Not having access to a stable income or able to rely on financial support from family and friends, young people reported how criminal activity – such as dealing drugs or low level fraud – could be an attractive option as a means of getting by. The benefits system could often not cover real living costs, while benefits rules make accessing employment while in homeless accommodation extremely difficult.
Alongside this, the sense of isolation and loneliness that homelessness can cause was also identified as a key risk factor for young people. Again, without the support networks enjoyed by their peers, young people experiencing homelessness are at risk of being targeted by gangs and exploiters.
4. Violence and exploitation can trap young people in homelessness.
"Gang-related activity can keep young people trapped in the cycle of homelessness", says one Centrepoint key worker based in London. "It can disrupt their lives; their move-on plans; their stability in one place."
The young people in this research spoke of not being able to access move-on accommodation due to historic gang issues, and feelings of danger and trauma in certain areas. At the same time, criminal records and previous antisocial behaviour could effectively ‘blacklist’ young people with certain housing providers, who can see them as too high risk to accommodate.
5. Young people living independently are targeted for exploitation
Young people that have moved on can be targeted for cuckooing and exploitation, especially where support and contact is not maintained. Local authorities and charities can provide floating support, but budget cuts and constraints often mean that the necessary support is not there.
We heard of cases of vulnerable young people, such as care leavers, losing accommodation after being targeted by drug dealers who took over their property. In these cases, vulnerable young people could again be pushed back into the cycle of homelessness.
While all young people are at risk of being exploited or caught up in criminal activity, the risks for those without a stable place to call home are massively increased. Centrepoint is calling for a reinvestment into youth services, fixes to the benefit system to ensure that young people aren't being forced into impossible situations, and for the government to look at homelessness guidance to ensure that councils and housing providers are taking youth violence seriously.
You can read the full report here.