At Centrepoint, we see young people at the sharp end of a crisis every day.
Family breakdown, struggles with mental health, problems with gangs and youth violence are all factors commonly wrapped up with youth homelessness. Cuts to services for young people, especially early intervention services, have only made these issues worse.
Almost two-thirds of the young people Centrepoint supports come to us after having to leave their family home. An increasing number of the young people we support are care leavers with nowhere else to go. These young people are among the most vulnerable members of our society, and are unable to rely on the support available to many of their peers.
A growing void
Violence, gangs and criminal exploitation are increasing problems in our services. Homeless young people, already in a state of vulnerability and isolation, are more at risk of getting caught up in illegal activity and face being targeted by criminal gangs.
Gangs are able to work within the growing void left by cuts to preventative services, like youth work. These services provide children and young people with suitable adults and role models they can build trusted relationships with.
Exploitation by gangs can include running drugs across the country, having accounts used for fraud and money laundering, and being the victim of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Gang rivalries can also make large areas of town and cities inaccessible – closing off access to jobs and opportunities and leaving homeless young people unable to move on from hostels and supported accommodation.
Youth violence can also lead to young people losing a place to live. We hear stories of those who have to leave their family home due to gangs threatening them and their families. There have also been cases where crime and antisocial behaviour has led to family breakdown and eviction.
Centrepoint is conducting a new piece of research to understand the links between homelessness, violence and criminal exploitation – and we're keen to hear from any youth professionals with experience in this field.
Keeping young people safe from gangs and exploitation is also a key focus of our National Youth Homelessness Conference, which takes place in Coventry on Thursday 21 March.
A lack of youth services
Of course, like youth homelessness involvement in violence and criminal activity is the result of a complicated interplay of factors. These issues range from poverty and exclusion to peer groups and poor mental health.
However speaking to both young people and practitioners, a common theme keeps recurring – the lack of quality youth services and opportunities available for young people before they reach crisis point.
For example, the Safer Lives Survey in the interim report of the Youth Violence Commission asked "If there was one thing you could change that you think would make young people safer, what would it be?"
Over 2,200 young people responded, with the most popular answer being "the provision of more youth centres, sport clubs and other youth activities in their local areas".
As well as giving critical respite to parents and carers, and providing a place for young people to congregate other than on the streets, staffed young services can offer advice and support on a range of issues. They also provide safe spaces for non-formal education, and are key to providing personal and social development that is so beneficial to an individual, their community and society.
Youth services also provide a crucial first step that can help prevention of so many other needs later on in a young person's life. One Centrepoint young person, in discussing reasons why he became homeless after family breakdown, speak about the closure of his local youth centres.
"Those places were good because people got together. Your friends were there. There were things to do instead of just roaming the streets. Now parents just worry. They’re fretting that you’re going to get stabbed," he said.
Centrepoint staff and key workers support young people and keep them safe as they move on from homelessness. But access to quality youth work has a part to play in making sure they don't become homeless in the first place.
That's why Centrepoint is supporting calls to ensure that quality youth work is available to all young people across the UK. Without the support, advice and guidance that committed youth workers can offer, we fear that more young people will end up in crisis situations – whether that's losing a job, a place to live or worse.