Housing

Thousands of 16 and 17-year-old children were homeless in England last year – and 'treated like adults'

All children deserve a safe and loving home. But far too many are “treated like adults” under the current system, the children’s commissioner has warned

Young people are at high risk of homelessness and exploitation.

Young people experiencing homelessness are at high risk of exploitation. href="https://unsplash.com/photos/II2ulqB-118"> David East/Unsplash

Nearly 6,500 16 and 17-year-old children were homeless or at risk of homelessness in England last year, “appalling” new data has found.

All children deserve a safe and loving home – but far too many are “treated like adults” under the current system, the children’s commissioner has warned.

Some 6,469 16- and 17-year-olds presented as homeless to their local authority in 2022-23.

Yet many of these children did not get the care they were legally entitled to, the new report shows, and were instead denied care or placed in unsuitable adult hostels.

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One child told the researchers she was sexually harassed while another 17-year-old girl was placed in housing alongside adults with drug addictions, an experience she described as “scary” and “really disturbing”.

All “vulnerable children” deserve support, children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza says.

“I am clear that children are children until they are 18 – they need care and a stable, safe environment to live in,” she warns.

“Otherwise, they risk experiencing adult homelessness. One child told my team that ‘I didn’t even get any help moving in – I literally got a trolley from Sainsbury’s to move my boxes.’

What happened to 16 and 17 year olds who present as homeless?

More than 1,000 of the children who presented as homeless in 2022/23 were unaccompanied children seeking asylum, while nearly half (47%) did so due to family breakdown.

If a child presents as homeless, the local authority assesses their situation, and decides whether to take them into care.

In many cases the local authority decide that a child can in fact stay safely at home with their families, or deems them ‘not homeless’ for another reason. Some 41% of children presenting as homeless in 2022/23 were denied accommodation, while for another 19% the local authority couldn’t say whether the child was accommodated or not.

If home isn’t safe, children are entitled to be taken into care and given ‘looked after child’ status. Too often children are denied this entitlement, the new report warns.

“While many children can and should be supported to stay safely at home, there are some children for whom that is sadly not possible,” Dame de Souza warns.

“Some of the children we spoke to for this report said that when they were not accommodated by the local authority, they began sofa-surfing with friends, or living in family arrangements that did not feel safe.

“As one young person told my team: ‘I was sofa-surfing with friends, aunties, my sisters, constantly up and down, left and right, nothing stable. I could be here in six months, I could not be in six months really.’

Even children who are offered accommodation are often denied proper help.

Of these, just 760 were taken into care under section 20 of the Children Act. The majority (1,200) were accommodated under housing legislation. Of this latter group, 30% were placed in unsuitable independent living accommodation.

“I was put in temporary accommodation – living with crackheads, was sexually harassed,” one girl told the researchers. “A man pisses in the kitchen. It’s meant to only be six weeks. I now have a personal advisor and a social worker, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

“I was in a hostel that wasn’t for young people like me, it was an adult hostel, so I found it quite disturbing,” another girl, 17, said.  “Just scary, because it’s not nice people that abuse drugs, do bad things.”

The children’s commissioner has called on local authorities to take children into care under section 20 as a default, and to be allocated an independent advocate to provide them with support and guidance should they be removed from care.

“This is extremely urgent – this is happening to vulnerable children now,” Dame De Souza said.

Separate research released earlier this month by youth homelessness charity Centrepoint found that almost 136,000 young people aged 16-24 faced homelessness in the UK last year.

This translates to one in 52 young people in this age group approaching a local authority asking for housing support.

“These figures should keep policymakers and politicians awake at night,” said Balbir Kaur Chatrik, director of policy and communications at centrepoint. “Not only are record levels of young people facing homelessness but, at the same time, fewer than ever are getting the support they need.”

The fault doesn’t lie with individual councils, he stressed, but with decades of cuts to social services.

“It’s clear some local authorities are simply overwhelmed with the number of people facing homelessness and, with limited resources, have little choice but to triage cases to support those where need is highest,” he warned.

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