Young, black and homeless: observations from Centrepoint’s front line

11 October 2021

More than half of the young people Centrepoint supports come from a Black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) background. As such, our hope is to initiate conversations that will help foster a fully inclusive culture at Centrepoint. It is important to recognise how challenges with race and ethnicity puts young people from diverse backgrounds at a greater risk of homelessness. If we do this then we can work towards a more equal and equitable housing system that rebukes systematic racism.

Currently, 61% of young people in supported accommodation are from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Last October, the Government released annual figures on the prevention and relief of homelessness. These figures showed:

  • Black people are disproportionately affected by homelessness, with one in 23 black households becoming homeless or threatened with homelessness, versus one in 83 households from all other ethnicities combined.
  • 9.7% of homeless people applying for help are black. However, black people only make up 3.5% of households in England.
  • A quarter (24%) of people making homelessness applications to local councils are from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, even though they make up just over a tenth (11%) of all households in England.
  • A person who is Black, Asian and minority ethnic becomes homeless or threatened with homelessness every eight minutes.

I spoke with our Senior Health and Wellbeing Manager, Portia; Deputy Service Manager, Irene; and Supported Housing Officer, Elizabeth to discuss the challenges in homelessness services that stem from race and ethnicity.

What challenges are unique to young black people that find themselves homeless or at risk of homelessness?

Irene: A lot of the time when young Black people leave the family home, mostly with males, there is the risk of them taking on gang affiliation. Even with some of the females there’s a risk. There’s also cultural challenges, where the family is closed and not receptive to any intervention.

Portia: Some of the challenges come from their experiences in health and social care services. A lot of the time, young Black people are viewed to be a lot stronger in terms of coping with stresses and traumatic events, and therefore don’t have equal access to social and health sectors.

Liz: Mental health. In the Black community, it’s seen as something that doesn’t exist and is dismissed. Young people are blindsided. So a lot of the time they’re in denial and don’t seem to acknowledge that it’s okay to not feel okay.

How difficult is it for young black (ethnic) homeless people to have access to the support they need to overcome homelessness?

Liz: Many Black people come from a background where they’ve always been in a family support unit, so having to access support outside of this is hard. They’re not aware that things like LGBTQ+ support or eating disorder support exists.

Portia: One of the first difficulties is the systematic discrimination that young Black people face when accessing support services. Predominantly the services available have a very white British model and don’t take into account the needs of ethnic minorities, the cultural barriers they may face when accessing that service, and the stigmas related to health and wellbeing. We need to look at how we can better engage them; that means creating a service tailored to them, looking at things like sexual and mental health, healthy relationships and sometimes specialist housing.

Irene: Education plays a big part. A percentage of the young Black people that come to our services lack the education or the means to express themselves, and when they try they’re perceived as aggressive. So the confidence to seek support is lacking. I’m Nigerian and we’re quite loud; sometimes we can be perceived as quite aggressive. For young people with an ethnic background, you find that even the means to express how they feel in services may not be forthcoming for them.

What are some of the tropes that we are victim to when trying to support young people from diverse ethnic backgrounds?

Irene: Sometimes we can unintentionally have a risk of assumption, because of what’s been presented. Even though the information may not paint an accurate picture, it can work against the young person getting the support they need.

Portia: A lack of understanding of their cultural background. When young Black homeless men access services, they’re more likely to be diagnosed with a severe mental health illness and sectioned under the Mental Health Act. We tend not to look at the history of that young man in terms of what’s brought him to this service. We have to look at factors such as prolonged stress, poverty, racism and discrimination, which have a toxic impact on young people’s health. Even the microaggressions that a young Black man may face in a predominantly white environment – it’s not outright racism, it’s being treated as a stereotype.

We also need to consider the specific traumas of Black and ethnic minority young people. The historical traumas endured by that young person’s family. A lot of people don’t realise that although slavery ended a long time ago, the intergenerational trauma still exists.

Liz: As a key worker, I sometimes forget that not everyone has had the same upbringing as me. I’m from an African background and my experience of discipline has been positive, but for another young person that discipline may have been abuse. When speaking to young people about the support they need, I need to learn now to not put myself at the forefront of their situation.

How important is representation in a supported housing environment? Do you think a lack of representation has a lasting effect on the skills development and therapy young people receive?

Portia: Representation is important because when we have a lack of understanding of someone’s cultural background, we may be guilty of minimising their trauma or experiences. For a young Black man, maybe he’s not able to go to a female worker and tell her he has an issue with sexual health. If we have predominantly female and white therapists, it is difficult for young Black men to be able to sit and talk about their traumas.

Liz: At Camberwell Foyer we’re an all-female team – it’s not that they don’t like us, but there’s certain things that the young men will not discuss with females. Some of them have told me that it’s not because they don’t respect me, but there’s just some things I won’t understand. Some boys don’t get on with their mums, and when they see me they feel like I won’t understand. A lot of them are missing that male figure in their lives, so they find this “older brother” representation in the streets, which can have a bad influence.

Irene: When we’ve had Black key workers in the past, young men in our services have been able to relate to them, especially around things like sexual health. The male worker is better equipped to deal with this based off their experiences. Liz touched on the gang affiliation and violence – for a lot of young Black men there is a family unit in the gangs they’re affiliated with. So it would make a huge difference if we could have mentoring from people from different ages who have similar experiences and have been able to accomplished something, especially with the discrimination that comes from being a young Black man. Things like stop and search are etched in their memory, and sometimes the way they come across is a retaliation to what they’ve had to endure.

The equity network is committed to supporting Centrepoint’s services to become more equal and equitable. What support strategies would you like to see Centrepoint put in place to better support young people of colour who are homeless or at risk of homelessness?

Liz: We need a mentoring scheme. A big brother/little brother service; a volunteer that spends time with the young person and talk about stuff they wouldn’t talk about with their key workers.

Also educational opportunities – we currently have outreach workers to do arts and crafts, but I feel like we need to be more in touch with their ethnic roots. Watching an African Caribbean play, or cooking sessions. As Black women we’re meant to know how to cook, but a lot of young girls don’t have the means because their parents didn’t teach them. We need to make it known to them that it’s okay to ask us for these things.

Portia: We do need more males within frontline work, and tailored services specific to young Black homeless men. Centrepoint could benefit from a schools programme around mental health and homelessness prevention. We tend to do more crisis intervention than preventative work. It’d be nice to see more preventative work.

Irene: There has to be consultation with young people, especially from ethnic backgrounds, about what services will be beneficial to them based on their experiences and traumas. At the end of the day, the services are for them and they should be able to feed into things like that. It would be good to have more Black and Asian workers in mental health services because it could help with engagement. Staff could also benefit from training to deal with the complex stuff that young people experience.