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Out of sight, out of mind: The hidden homelessness scandal

Over Christmas, Britain’s rough-sleeping epidemic focused attention on the homelessness crisis. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Thousands more people – many of them young – are staying on sofas, in shelters and in hostels, supported by places like London's New Horizon Youth Centre

Rough sleeping is on the rise. Since 2010, the official number of street homeless people has risen by a catastrophic 134 per cent. To spend time in any town or city centre in the UK now is to come face to face with the people whose precarious living situations form these shocking statistics.

Yet street homelessness is only the visible tip of the iceberg. Recent figures from the charity Shelter estimate that, as of April last year, while 4,500 people were sleeping rough in Britain, more than 300,000 were in hostels, temporary shelters or unsuitable and overcrowded accommodation. These figures do not include those sofa-surfing who are not registered by local authorities as being in need of housing assistance.

A report by the London Assembly’s Housing Committee suggests that young people form a disproportionate share of the hidden homeless population – with young LGBTQ+ people at particular risk.

It does get annoying. You go somewhere new and start building up a life. You think it is going to stay like that and then you have to move again. And again

The New Horizon Youth Centre, near Euston Station in London, is on the front line. Last year its staff helped 2,450 young people with everything from securing accommodation and work placements, to fitness and music classes, workshops focusing on self-esteem, and sexual health.

Open daily for people aged 16 to 21, it also provides breakfast and lunch, showers, laundry facilities, a safe space and access to counselling and a nurse.

“What we are seeing is increasing numbers of young people coming through the doors who are homeless. But they wouldn’t classify themselves that way,” says New Horizon CEO Shelagh O’Connor.

“Our young people see themselves as quite apart. That guy sleeping in the doorway is ‘homeless’. But they are not. In reality they are, because they don’t have safe accommodation to be in.

“Sofa-surfing is common to the majority of the young people we see,” continues O’Connor. “It is not just your auntie offering you her sofa for a while. It is a stranger offering you a space to stay – and invariably our young people say that there are strings attached to that offer.

“So it can be a dangerous situation for young people to be in. As a society, we need to prevent that happening.”

Founded in 1967 by Lord Longford, New Horizon Youth Centre marked its 50th anniversary with an eye-catching #sofachange campaign.

The centre was refurbished in 2010 and is a lively space. Each morning young people arriving for the first time are given appointments with the advice team. Their immediate, short-term and longer-term needs are assessed, and a whole network of specialist organisations with which the centre has built links, can be accessed.

I had to shut up the voice in my head telling me it was dangerous. I was not in a position of power.

Yuuji is 21, and has been attending New Horizon Youth Centre regularly for the past 18 months.

Sofa-surfing can mean a wide range of things,” he says. “There are different ways of doing it. I was using Craigslist. I knew it was dodgy but I had no other choices. This was with strangers. I could have rooms for free – but there were compensations for this.”

Whether for a week, a month, or a single night, this was how he spent last winter.


The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

“It was more and more difficult,” he says. “I had to shut up the voice in my head telling me it was dangerous. I was not in a position of power. Anything could have happened. It is not something I was proud of – but a lot of places weren’t able to help me.”

Yuuji, like many of the young people who are hidden homeless, was working for much of this time. “When you are under 25, not earning living wage, you have to work so much you get demented. Double shifts, 90 hours a week, no housing. How do you rest?” he says.

With help from the New Horizon housing team, Yuuji is now in a shelter. He also has a new job with a coffee shop chain that pays the national living wage to workers below 25. He hopes to move into the private rental sector early this year.

[The emergency shelter] was not a good environment for someone my age

Marc, 19, began sofa-surfing after a family breakdown. He began staying with increasingly distant – geographically and in terms of their relationship – family members when he was just 16. His education has suffered. He had to leave one course when he moved to a different part of the city.

“It does get annoying. You go somewhere new and start building up a life. You think it is going to stay like that and then you have to move again. And again,” he says. “I look at where I am sometimes and think, ‘I was meant to be there two years ago.’”

Marc has also spent time at an emergency shelter as part of the No Second Night Out scheme, which aims to prevent people sleeping rough for any length of time. He found it a scary place. “It was all older people, or people on gear or crack. It was not a good environment for someone my age.”

John Snow Hidden homelessness New Horizon Centre
Newsreader Jon Snow fronts New Horizon's #sofachange campaign

Keerthy, 22, says she had to leave her family home because she is transgender.

“I was kicked out because I am transitioning and my parents didn’t accept it. I didn’t have anything to wear, I walked out with what I had,” she says. “When I came here, they let me have a shower, hot food and some clothes.

“I have met other trans people here. Not everyone knows what we are going through. Housing is so important. When I am on my hormone tablets I will need a stable place to be. I have no words – I am excited, scared, everything is going through my mind.”

Despite reports detailing how LGBTQ+ people on the street are especially vulnerable, Keerthy was not deemed priority need when it came to emergency housing. She is hopeful that this winter she will finally be housed.

“I’m working with housing here and the Salvation Army. They have referred me to a winter shelter. I am on the waiting list and have an appointment today.”

Hidden Homelessness feature 1289

O’Connor explains why younger people often don’t show up in rough sleeping statistics. “They can be hidden because of sofa-surfing but also by staying in places where they are not visible – in derelict buildings, cars, stairwells or in tents parks or by the canal.”

For O’Connor, youth homelessness needs specific policies and specialist accommodation.

She explains that pressure on the services due to cuts to local authority budgets mean requirements for high priority have increased. This, in turn, leads to more young people sofa surfing or rough sleeping. As Universal Credit is rolled out, O’Connor expects more young people to become part of the hidden homeless.

“We see young people who aren’t getting payments for five or six months. Months. Not weeks,” she says. “That is the reality for some of our young people. Some people are falling through that net. These are administrative issues that are having a really detrimental effect on the lives of young people.”

For O’Connor and the New Horizon team, the plan is to use existing partnerships and 50 years of experience in the fight against homelessness to provide much needed accommodation.

“We desperately need more short and medium-stay provision in order to prevent young people descending into homelessness with all the inherent cost implications for them and for society,” she says.

“In spring we will be launching an architecture competition with McAslan and Partners, the architect of King’s Cross Station, to design high quality short and medium stay accommodation for young people.

“We are going out there to show how it should be done. And we will be working with local authorities across London to identify possible sites.”

Ken Loach visits New Horizon Youth Centre
Ken Loach visits New Horizon Youth Centre before delivering last year's Longford Lecture

Working closely with the London Mayor, whose new Housing Strategy gets a tentative thumbs up – although those working on the frontline are desperate for a pan-London approach due to the transient nature of so many young people’s lives – O’Connor and her team are hopeful solutions can be found.

“We can transform the landscape. We can create routes out of homelessness for these young people. And we can create really independent young people that move on with their lives,” she says.

“The cost benefit for us as a society is immense. All that money that could be wasted with the young person ending up in prison or the impact of deteriorating physical and mental health.

“We need to focus our resources and look at youth homelessness distinctly. Because these young people are not entrenched in homelessness as yet – and our goal is to prevent them becoming entrenched in homelessness.”

Read more about hidden homeless in this week’s Big Issue magazine, we also remember two vendors who tragically lost their lives in Birmingham five years ago and Xand van Tulleken fights for clean air.
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