One in three young people have gone a full day without a meal. Image: Pexels
Frankie cannot afford to eat. In and out of homelessness since 2019, the 21-year-old often goes to bed hungry. The tins brought to his emergency accommodation from food banks run out quickly so, until the next batch arrives, he survives on one meal at night and drinks large glasses of water to get him through the day.
Almost half of 16- to 25-year-olds have gone to bed hungry in the last 12 months, according to new research by youth homelessness charity Centrepoint. More than one in three (35 per cent) of young people have gone a whole day without food.
“I’m one of them,” Frankie says as he reflects on the harrowing statistics. “I’ve gone to bed hungry multiple times a week, both sides of the pandemic. It was tricky for me. I was in recovery from addiction, and you need your strength for going through that.”
Frankie, who is neurodivergent, suffers with epilepsy and was previously hospitalised after a mental health crisis, is too unwell to work. Based in Manchester, he survives on universal credit and PIP – a benefit given to people with disabilities and long-term physical and mental health conditions. But the benefits he receives are not enough to cover his cost of living.
According to Centrepoint, just under half (45 per cent) of young people say their income is not enough to get by. Younger generations are disproportionately impacted by low rates of universal credit too, receiving around 23 per cent less than claimants over 25.
Over a quarter of vulnerable young people being supported by homelessness charities are living off less than £5 a week after their rent and bills have been paid. These young people have approximately £4.60 a week to pay for food, travel and leisure activities.
Frankie says there are times when he has been grateful to be homeless – because he’s not having to fork out money each month on rent. He was placed into emergency temporary accommodation last year with the support of Centrepoint, and he has recently been moved into supported accommodation, which gives him more independence.
Frankie describes his experiences of living in temporary accommodation with upsetting detail. “A lot of us didn’t have the money for food,” he says, “and the places themselves didn’t get food on site. To make matters worse, you weren’t allowed to use the ovens or microwaves at the hotel. You can’t have fridges.
“They didn’t have kettles – you had to buy them on your own. A lot of the time, I was just going to get meal deals which got really expensive.”
In Frankie’s temporary accommodation, “food fairies” arrived to deliver donations from food banks each week. But Frankie struggles to eat certain foods because of severe dental problems and sensory issues caused by neurodivergence.
“There’s no accommodating people that are neurodivergent and are adverse to different textures or different foods,” he says. “There’s no accommodating any of that. At least a third of that stuff would go out of date or I couldn’t eat.
“Once the tins of spaghetti hoops or baked beans or pot noodles had run out, for the next five days or so, you eat at night, you drink big glasses and you go for walks.”
Hunger is having a long term impact on a young people’s health. Two in five (43 per cent) young people who are receiving benefits or financial support from the government aren’t getting enough nutrients for a healthy lifestyle. A third (33 per cent) of young people cannot access the food needed for normal growth and a healthy lifestyle.
Heather Paterson, a dietitian at Centrepoint, says: “We’re seeing first-hand that hunger, malnourishment and dehydration causes exhaustion, and young people are struggling to focus and concentrate. Additionally, the stress of worrying about where food will come from next, is debilitating.
“In the longer term, not having access to a regular balanced diet has serious consequences on all of the body’s systems; from gut health to heart strength, and mental health. No one’s immune system should be tested like this. This way of living is simply not sustainable.”
Centrepoint found that almost a quarter (23 per cent) of young people are now being forced to miss work or education due to a lack of food. Frankie, who studied social policy at university before having to drop out for health reasons, admitted there have been times where he has missed GP appointments because he has been too anxious.
The three main reasons why a young person might skip a meal are bills, the cost of rent and feeding their children. Tasha, a 24-year-old mother on universal credit living in Derbyshire, says: “I’m doing long days at work just to get more food for the family. By doing this I don’t get to see my daughter as much. When it comes to meals, there are a lot of days when I don’t eat or have little to eat as I want my daughter to have more to eat than me.
“Even with universal credit, we never have enough for a lot of things. It only pays some of the bills and my wage goes on bills and food and clothes for my daughter.”
Karen Barker, of the Financial Fairness Trust, adds: “The cost of living crisis is making life more difficult for everyone, but this research shows that for too many young people, the consequences are catastrophic. These effects are heart-breaking now, but may have longer-term consequences too – if they can’t afford to eat, it’s impossible to imagine how they will afford to save for a home or a pension.
“While the additional government funding announced last month to help with living costs is welcome, young people need enduring adequate income, in addition to temporary measures, if they are to build secure stable lives.”
Centrepoint is calling on the government to increase universal credit for all people, including those aged 16 to 25. The £20 universal uplift was a “lifeline” for young people during the pandemic, but it was withdrawn in October.
Frankie adds: “I feel very helpless, especially with the cost of living crisis. I’m university educated, but I didn’t graduate. I have those skills, and I don’t have any way to be able to harness them in my life. I’ve not got the energy levels to get out and do what I love. People who are in recovery want to be productive members of society, but they aren’t being given the means and tools to do that. I’m very frustrated.”