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London Mayor 2021: Who will tackle youth homelessness in the capital?

Today sees the London mayoral elections take place once again, but this year will be different from the others: in the wake of a pandemic that has devastated the lives of many all over the country, there is much to rebuild.

In 2016, Labour politician Sadiq Khan took over as mayor the city from now Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He is still in the running for 2021, alongside Conervative politician Shaun Bailey, Luisa Poritt from the Liberal Democrats, and the Green Party’s Sian Berry. All have vowed to improve London over the next four years – but who will make a difference to the lives of homeless young people?

What has changed since the last election?

There is no doubt that the events of the last year have been hard on everyone, but young people have certainly been one of the groups hit hardest.

Since the pandemic hit in March last year, our latest research shows there was a 33% increase in demand for our Helpline, suggesting that, despite interventions initiated by the Government, many young people are still struggling to gain access to the support they need.

This can be chalked up to a number of different issues: first, a 15% rise in youth unemployment. Our research shows that many vulnerable young people tend to pick up precarious employment such as agency temping; part time or zero-hours contracts; or on-call work, which makes them particularly susceptible to poor pay, and unreliable (or no) hours of work. The forced closure of retail and hospitality services in 2020, and the precarious nature of these industries, means many young people were left without work.

As such, this past year young people faced the highest rates of unemployment of any age group, and there was an 117% increase in the benefit claimant count between February 2020 and February 2021. Many who had lost jobs or loved ones were struggling to pay for rent, and who had previously been sofa surfing were forced to leave due to lockdown restrictions on households. The need for mental health care soared exponentially.

Although there was intervention from the Government, it wasn’t enough to help the huge numbers of people now facing homelessness. Despite the ‘Everyone In’ scheme, eviction ban and the Cold Weather Fund, our 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. Homelessness charities like ours struggled with the soaring demand.

In February 2021, our Head of Media & Public Affairs, Paul Noblet, called for the Government to make good on their promise to help rough sleepers through the pandemic: “In practice that means providing more funding to ensure that night shelters and homelessness services can accommodate everyone who needs support. But crucially it also means providing accommodation for different age groups, as for many young people the prospect of all age accommodation can scare them into staying out on the streets.”

In London, affordable housing is a huge problem. Rent prices perennially soar with wages rarely rising at such a pace, and as a result many people simply do not have the funds for somewhere stable to live. Luckily, all four of the main candidates have affordable housing high on the agenda, each with a different idea on how to tackle it, from a Housing First model to a push for stronger renter’s rights. But their approach needs to be nuanced: as Paul said, young people have different needs to adults.

So what do homeless young people in London need?

At Centrepoint our mantra for young people is ‘A home and a job’. We want young people to thrive, and in order to do that they need two basic things: somewhere to live where they feel safe and secure, stable work. We know that having these two CRUCIAL THINGS create the foundations that allow young people to move on from homelessness and flourish into adulthood. In London, particularly in the aftermath of the pandemic, neither of these things are particularly easy to come by. Statistics show that from April-June 2020, there were 4,227 rough sleepers in London – a 33% increase on the same period last year, and a 63% increase from two years ago.

At the crux of this problem there are two roots: soaring unemployment rates and the lack of affordable housing. The two are bound together. Essentially, the Government has failed to provide homes that are truly affordable for Londoners and it has shut many out in the cold.

More funding is needed both in the short term and the long term. Temporary accommodation and homelessness services need more support in place to help the rising numbers of rough sleepers. But better funding is also needed to ensure that young people can move on from homelessness – to find that secure job and stable home we so badly want for all the vulnerable young people that pass through our doors.

Who will be the right candidate?

Paul says the current mayor, Sadiq Khan, has made progress during the past five years - in the year 2019/20, more council homes were started in London than in any year since 1984, for example. But he also acknowledges that it’s very difficult for whomever holds the role to make a big impact: “They are reliant on funding from central government and many of the legal duties to help rough sleepers actually lies with the London boroughs.”

What has been particularly welcome is that all members of the London Assembly, regardless of political party, backed a motion in December 2020 acknowledging that more needed to be done to tackle youth homelessness specifically.

There must be equal emphasis from all candidates on both the root causes of youth homelessness and the problems that grow from it. “The mayor has recognised that schemes like our Independent Living Programme are an innovative way of tackling the dual problems of homelessness and youth unemployment,” says Paul. “Whether it is Sadiq Khan or the Conservative, Green or Liberal Democrat who becomes mayor, support for new housing ideas to help young people move on from homelessness and into employment will be key.”

The bottom line is this: whomever the takes the title of Mayor after 6 May will need to continue the trend of recognising that homeless young people need different support and accommodation from older rough sleepers. Paul explains: “They must be willing to make the argument to central government that the capital needs more funding for age-appropriate accommodation if we want young people to get the support they need.”