In one recent survey, Centrepoint found that one in six homeless young people reported taking part in criminal activity for somewhere to stay. Homeless young people are particularly vulnerable and many face additional challenges which may make them more likely to engage in criminal activity. Difficulties accessing secure accommodation, a lack of supportive relations and unstable employment may all increase the risk of homeless young people committing crime and increase susceptibility to gang exploitation.
In order to further understand the contribution of youth homelessness to offending behaviour, we conducted a systematic review to examine the available academic and grey literature on these issues and draw out any key themes and common factors. Our aim was to use our research to develop insights and create recommendations to be taken forward to improve future policy and practice.
Our review aimed to examine and provide answers to the following questions:
1) What are the relationships between youth homelessness and offending?
2) What are suitable interventions to support homeless young people?
3) What implications does this have for UK policy moving forward?
We searched electronic databases, reviewing the evidence from the last 50 years (the length of time since the charity Centrepoint was founded). We identified approximately 3000 papers during the initial search that met our inclusion criteria.
When examining the relationships between youth homelessness and offending, the most significant finding was the impact of disrupted family relationships. This included, but was not limited to, arguments with caregivers and siblings or the breakdown of familial relations. In addition, substance abuse, mental illness, gang involvement, trauma and involvement in the care system were also found to influence the relationship between homelessness and offending behaviour amongst young people.
Evidence also highlights that many homeless young people engage in minor offences such as theft, and a particularly prominent theme was that homeless youth commit crime for survival, to acquire money or shelter.
Our review highlights the lack of available suitable accommodation placements and options for young people facing homelessness, particularly those with offending histories. Homeless young offenders also face barriers to accessing and maintaining suitable housing, and many receive insufficient support upon leaving custody. We found that many young offenders do not have accommodation arranged prior to their release, forcing them toward a cycle of re-offending in order to fulfil their basic needs and obtain shelter.
Our findings highlight important steps for improving policy and interventions to ensure homeless young people are adequately supported. Pathways to homelessness are complex and thus numerous factors should be targeted within interventions to reduce future offending behaviours.
We found that family mediation and relational support are consistently effective interventions in tackling both youth homelessness and offending. In terms of housing, the evidence suggests that supported housing placements are often the most suitable accommodation option for young people facing homelessness. Our findings identified that homeless young people require access to more supported accommodation placement options, services and resources, particularly those leaving custody.
The findings from the review provide some clear directions for informing policy and practice. It is recommended that agencies work together to create integrated and collaborative services in order to address the multiple challenges that homeless young people experience - for example, supported accommodation placements should be psychologically and trauma informed to ensure homeless young people are adequately supported. Many have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect and as such may have difficulties trusting others. Organisations should ensure staff are aptly trained to enable homeless youth to build supportive and trusting relationships with others.
Our findings also identified the need for further research in this area – in particular, quantitative studies are needed to enhance our knowledge and determine the scale and scope of the relationships between homelessness and offending amongst young people. It is unclear how many young people are in need of supported housing as there are currently no accurately collated national figures. Future research also needs to consider the impact that gender and ethnicity have on the relationships between youth homelessness and offending.
In summary, our research highlights what should be done to improve accommodation options and reduce rates of re-offending amongst homeless young people. It highlights that homelessness is a major factor which influences criminal activity amongst young people facing housing insecurity and the inability to access suitable and stable housing can force them toward a cycle of homelessness and offending behaviours. Crime and living arrangements appear to be clearly interconnected and without addressing these issues together, we cannot break this cycle.