A matter of life and death – Housing, homelessness and serious youth violence
“I said that if I’m really gonna stop this stuff…I gotta better so that’s what I done. But I wouldn’t have done that without having a place to stay first.”
In the last 7 years New Horizons Youth Centre has worked with more than 2,000 young people caught up in offending, violence and criminal exploitation, and a majority of them needed support around housing and homelessness. The recent evaluation of our work demonstrates that safe accommodation helps young people with gang affiliations engage more effectively with services and subsequently make positive decisions. Our two learning reports call for safe housing to be made a priority in addressing youth violence.
The third time he was stabbed, Yassir ended up in intensive care with life-changing injuries. The perpetrators knew his address, so if he were to survive, he would put his life would be at risk again, simply by returning home or even just to his local area. The incident left him physically weak, severely traumatised and effectively homeless. His local authority refused to accept a homelessness duty despite New Horizons, the hospital and the police advocating together on his behalf. Yassir was to be discharged from hospital without a safe place to recover or rebuild his life.
Sadly, Yassir’s case is all too familiar. Many young people affected by serious youth violence experience poverty, childhood trauma and housing insecurity. Our pioneering Youth Outreach Project (YOP) works with young people involved in offending or gangs, and has shown this cohort is less likely to have their homelessness resolved, and where it is resolved it takes nearly twice as long. In her evaluation of the project, Erin Sanders- McDonagh found that a staggering 95% of the young people she interviewed had been or were currently homeless.
As with Yassir, serious youth violence can cause or perpetuate homelessness, worsened by the lack of appropriate statutory responses and provision. New Horizons have supported criminally exploited children and young people who have ended up running county lines simply to get a roof over their heads. Others return to gang-involved lives when they leave prison with nowhere to go, feeling this is a safer option than sleeping rough.
In our own successful trauma-informed YOP model we work closely with young people on a long-term basis, to build trust. We help with their mental and emotional health needs, together with practical issues such as safety, employability and housing. Despite the odds, and shocking shortage of accommodation options, our YOP team achieves positive housing outcomes for many young people escaping gang violence. This is mostly down to the team’s extraordinary skills in advocacy, complex case work, partnership approaches, and the benefits of a multi-disciplinary team.
Best practice alone cannot solve the housing issues of young people caught up in violence. Many are in immediate danger of being injured or killed every time they walk on the streets, and usually they have previously been stabbed or shot. Too often their victimisation is ignored. Local authorities need to consider vulnerability and priority housing need much more explicitly in relation to violence outside of the home. The mental health problems, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, of these young people must be taken more seriously and better understood during homelessness assessments.
This can only be effective if young people are able to move into youth-appropriate accommodation where they will be safe and this means investment to create new provision, whilst maximising the use of existing bed spaces and expanding reciprocal arrangements between local authorities to make a quicker, cost effective difference.
Our reports leave no doubt that homelessness and serious youth violence are interrelated – so housing should be part of the solution. Yassir benefitted from the support and advocacy New Horizons was able to offer him, and the local authority eventually acknowledged his vulnerability, meaning that he is now safe in long-term accommodation. Secure accommodation needs to be part of any approach in understanding and addressing serious youth violence and its root causes. Without it, young people stay homeless, vulnerable, and remain stuck in offending and gang affiliation - situations with considerable human and social costs.