Social Justice

Young man made homeless aged 11 after fleeing abusive home tells UK government to 'wake up' and help

The number of young people facing homelessness reached nearly 136,000 in 2022 to 2023. It could be even higher now, as refugee homelessness spirals. Charities are calling for a national strategy to end youth homelessness

young people homeless

Young people are supported by New Horizons Youth Centre in North London. Image: NHYC

Ben went to his local council, starving and shattered, because he was homeless and had nowhere else to turn. He was 20 and it was a huge step for him to ask for help.

He was given an assessment and told he had to provide his passport and proof of address in recent years. “I was sleep deprived and hungry,” he says. “That’s hard. It’s a hard list to fulfil. So I didn’t manage to produce everything on time.”

Ben’s application for housing support was closed and he was back to sleeping on the streets.

Just under 136,000 young people approached their council as homeless or about to become homeless in 2022 to 2023, according to recent Centrepoint research. That equates to 372 per day and a new young person facing the threat of homelessness every four minutes.

The true figure could be even higher, with New Horizon Youth Centre, which supports young people experiencing homelessness in London, estimating that around half of young people have never approached their council for help.

A collective of 120 youth homelessness charities, including Centrepoint, YMCA and Depaul UK, have launched a petition calling for a national strategy to end youth homelessness in the UK. As a general election approaches, they want political parties to make a commitment to tackling the crisis.

Phil Kerry, the chief executive of New Horizon Youth Centre says: “In December, we had double the number of people coming through our drop in as the previous December. The numbers are just escalating.”

Ben, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, was 11 when he first experienced homelessness. He was running away from home and an abusive father. 

Ben went where many other 11-year-olds might when looking for a safe haven: Butlins. He played with other children and ran away from security guards in the day and, at night, he slept inside a slide in the playground. But then social services got involved and he was forced to return home, back to the father from whom he had been trying to run away.

asylum backlog, new horizon, london
A queue, mostly made of refugees, waiting for New Horizon to open. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

The Big Issue meets Ben, now 21, at New Horizon Youth Centre in North London. It is the second time we have visited this centre this month, and again a queue of people needing help stretches outside in the cold – partly because the government has resumed evicting refugees from asylum accommodation.

The charity does all it can but it cannot help everyone. Polly Stephens, head of policy and learning, says: “We’ve never seen a need like this, and there’s never been fewer options so there’s going to be significant numbers of people on the streets and nowhere for them to go.”

Ben was falsely accused of a serious crime last year – he has since been proved innocent, but he was kicked out of his family home and became homeless again. He had nowhere to go.

His local council said he needed a letter from his family saying they would no longer house him. They claimed he had a right to go back to live with his family until he had been formally evicted, and he would have 56 days to find a new place to live. 

But Ben felt unable to return to his family, so he slept rough. “I would sleep but not sleep,” he says. “I would sleep for three to 10 minutes and then just shoot straight back up. It was a weird feeling. My whole body from head to toe would just shoot up like an electric shock.

“I didn’t want to go to certain areas. I needed to be in a busy environment just for my own safety. Even though I was hungry, I still couldn’t eat because I didn’t have the appetite for it. Even if I tried to eat, my hand would be shaking.”

Ben felt ignored by the authorities, which is echoed by other young people. Zephyr, a 20-year-old whose name has also been changed, became homeless last year after a family breakdown and struggles with his mental health. “I tried to contact the council so many times,” he says, “but they didn’t respond at all.”

He was street homeless for a week. “It was awful,” Zephyr says. “You don’t know what you’re doing and you can’t think properly. You’re starving and when you’re starving you can’t think of anything else. All you can think about is food.”

Zephyr had been a university student and had lived in the UK for four years, but he was not coping and had to drop out. He had not been in the country long enough to be entitled to benefits and he felt he had nowhere to turn. He lost weight.

“I felt like I hadn’t been listened to,” Zephyr says. It was not until he discovered New Horizon Youth Centre that he found a support network. And Ben had a similar experience – it was charities, rather than the authorities, which pulled them both out of the darkest times.

“It was only in the worst time of my life that I got help,” Ben says. “I got connected with the Crisis team. They put me in a hotel. I hadn’t realised how bad it was. They helped me with sleeping tablets which helped a lot just recovering on that sleep that I’d lost. I had a meal every day. Even just having one meal a day meant a lot.”

But it was not enough. “I didn’t even have universal credit at this point. I didn’t even know what universal credit was. It reached a point where I was getting more and more hungry. One meal a day is not enough to last me. I was getting tea and coffee at the hotel, but that’s liquid. It’s not filling.” 

Even for those young people who are receiving benefits, it is not enough to live. A person under the age of 25 gets nearly £80 less in universal credit each month compared with someone on the standard rate, meaning that they are nearly £200 short of the money they need to survive each week.

“That is a major blocker for young people,” Kerry says. “Some of the assumptions are that they are young, they’ll get by and they have to share or that they live with mum and dad. But actually those rules don’t apply here.”

Ben went to the New Horizon Youth Centre, and he was stunned by the help offered. They put him in touch with a counsellor, gave him food and bus tickets and supported him through the council’s housing assessment which he had previously been unable to complete.

People being given food at New Horizon Youth Centre. Image: NHYC

Through this he was then put into a hostel – but the room was tiny and dark. The showers were sometimes cold. 

“The room itself was depressing, so if you’re not in a good mental state you can easily slip back,” Ben says. “And in that period, I went into rent arrears. When the council moved me there, they told me to apply for housing benefits. I had never applied for benefits before. I tried it. I gave up.”

He was afraid to tell New Horizon he was struggling and he was kicked out of the hostel.

Ben was street homeless for around five months in total. He was helped into emergency accommodation by New Horizon and Crisis – but that lasted just seven days each time. He went back to his area, and walked around looking for help, and he barely slept.



Recently, New Horizon have supported Ben to find an assisted home in North London, where he is now safe. Zephyr also was supported into a hostel for a few months, and he is now paying for his own room. He is now working as a support assistant for a social housing association and his dream is to become a youth worker to help other young people in situations like his own.

Both young men are in a much better place, but thousands of others are still homeless and not receiving any support. “Needs have never been higher, but the options have never been less,” Kerry says. “It’s disempowering and frustrating.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “Everyone deserves a safe and decent place to call home. Since 2010, we have delivered over 684,800 new affordable homes, including over 171,100 homes for social rent and our £11.5 billion Affordable Homes Programme is delivering even more. 

“We’re making the private rented sector fairer through the Renters Reform Bill, which includes abolishing Section 21 evictions so tenants have greater security in their homes. We’re also spending £1 billion to tackle homelessness and get families into permanent accommodation.”

But homeless charities warn it is not enough. More than half of rough sleepers have done so for the first time before the age of 25, so charities believe one of the best ways to end rough sleeping is to stop young people ever needing to sleep rough.

The proposed national strategy would prioritise three key areas: prevention to ensure that children and young people are guaranteed support to reduce the risk of homelessness, financial security and affordable housing. 

“They need to wake up,” Ben says as he speaks the actions the government and authorities must take. “There are people out there who need help, who are trying to get out and have difficult situations but can’t really express it. I had a level of pride. I didn’t want to ask for help because of the background that I came from. There are people out there who have been taught to just keep on going.”

The charities are calling on the public to join their calls for change. Support the #PlanForThe136k by signing the petition here.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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