Housing for people affected by transitions
Home alone: transitions to independent living for young people leaving care - Katharine Sacks-Jones, Become
Transition’ is a familiar term for all young people who leave the care system. The word features prominently in every discussion with a social worker, in every written care plan, and in every decision made by others about their lives. Whilst the word itself might be quite abstract, the transition to independent living is felt very acutely by over 10,000 young care leavers each year.1
Many young people who leave care go onto achieve amazing things, recovering from experiences of trauma in childhood to lead happy and healthy adult lives. However, too many continue to find themselves experiencing the worst aspects of both the housing and care systems at a critical time in their young lives. At Become, housing is the most common issue we support young care leavers with through our advice services. Young people come to us with challenges around accessing safe and suitable accommodation as well as maintaining it, often alongside wider problems with finances, employment and mental health.
"Too many continue to find themselves experiencing the worst aspects of both the housing and care systems at a critical time in their young lives."
The majority of young people will leave care at age 18 when they cease to have the legal protection associated with being a child, although they can leave at any time from age 16. This change is marked by a withdrawal of support from the local authority, in theory intended to reflect how any good parent would prepare their child for early adulthood. However, the process of leaving care is instead experienced by many young people as abrupt, disruptive and isolating.
As the number of children in care has risen dramatically in the last decade, with disproportionate growth in the number of older teenagers especially, the number of young people aged 16 and above who leave care has also increased. Since 2010, there has been a 37% increase in the number of young people aged 16 or above leaving care, rising from just over 9,000 to over 12,500 last year.2
Some care leavers will return to live with their families, some will stay a little longer with their foster carers, and some will continue to be supported in transitional accommodation or by adult social services. However, the majority will be expected to complete their ‘transition to independence’ on or shortly after their 18th birthday – to manage their own household and the responsibility that comes with this, including paying for rent, bills, and food.
This early forced transition to adult life is not one experienced by the majority of their peers. Over half of all young people aged 18-24 live with their parents and this remains at 1 in 4 even when looking at those aged up to 34.3 By contrast, most care-experienced young people are tasked with going it alone long before this, missing the practical and emotional safety net available to others through their family and social networks.
Most local authorities will prioritise care leavers in their allocation policies for social housing, but limited availability across the country means this far from guarantees them a home. Even if they can access housing through this route, young people are not always effectively supported through the process, and many report feeling pressured to take on something unsuitable or unaffordable – risking a judgement of ‘intentionally homeless’ in the future if they build up rent arrears and lose their tenancy.
For those who have spent their recent years living in foster care or a children’s home located outside of their local authority area, they face an incredibly difficult choice: apply for social housing where they currently live based on a ‘local connection’ claim, or apply in their home authority where they stand a better chance as a care leaver but sacrifice the relationships, support networks and opportunities in the area they may now call home.
About 1 in 10 care leavers will move initially into some form of supported accommodation commissioned by the local authority.4 Although they are designed to act as a ‘stepping stone’ to a more independent setting, these options (including foyers, supported lodgings or self-contained flats with floating support) vary considerably in their quality and can introduce young people to additional risks.
Given the shortage of other accommodation types, care leavers are often pushed into the private rented sector. However, they can face significant challenges here, including pulling together sufficient cash for a deposit, having a named guarantor, and sometimes battling against the prejudices of private landlords – especially if they’re using benefits to pay their rent. These difficulties often drive young people leaving care into less secure arrangements with unscrupulous landlords who may take advantage of their tenant’s vulnerable position.
"Care leavers are often pushed into the private rented sector. However, they can face significant challenges here, including pulling together sufficient cash for a deposit, having a named guarantor, and sometimes battling against the prejudices of private landlords."
Previous research has suggested that 26% of care leavers have sofa surfed, and 14% have slept rough.5 Care leavers are deemed “priority need” under homelessness legislation, but only up until age 21. Too many are pushed by the system into cycles of homelessness at crisis point and temporary relief through short-term emergency accommodation. This inevitably has enormous impacts on their mental health and ability to pursue education or employment.
Care leavers cease to be eligible for any support from children’s services at age 25. Those older care leavers are absent from national and local data, even if we know the legacy of care experience is likely to impact on their ability to access stable housing. The whereabouts of about 1 in 10 care leavers aged 19-21 isn’t known to local authorities6 – these are the young people likely to be at most risk of homelessness.
The government response to COVID-19 has demonstrated that things thought previously impossible – such as offering accommodation to nearly all rough sleepers – are in fact possible with the right political will, funding and systems in place. The government guaranteed that no young person should be forced to leave care during this crisis, recognising the importance of stability and care at a time of national emergency. We shouldn’t now accept a return to the status quo where 18-year-old care leavers are
expected to demonstrate an almost overnight ‘transition’ to a mythical state of ‘independence’.
There are some very clear policy changes the government can make to improve access to housing for care leavers, including investing in more social housing and high-quality supported accommodation, ending the postcode lottery in local authority allocation policies, expanding priority need to homeless care leavers beyond age 21, and establishing a national deposit and guarantor scheme to enable easier entry into the private rental market.
However, reform needs to be wider than this too. Our ambition is that all children leaving care have somewhere to live as young adults that isn’t just ‘suitable’, but somewhere they can truly call home – somewhere that doesn’t provide just physical safety but comfort, dignity, and a sense of belonging. Our housing and care systems must work together to provide the best start to adulthood for all care-experienced young people, centred around the importance of stability and strong relationships. In the future, we hope the transition for young people leaving care won’t be over the course of weeks but experienced instead over the entirety of their time in care and founded on principles of interdependence rather than independence.
- DfE (2019). Children looked after in England including adoption: 2018 to 2019. Online:
- Office of National Statistics (2019). Young adults living with their parents. www.ons.gov.uk/
- Centrepoint (2017). From care to where? Care leavers’ access to accommodation.
- DfE (2019). Children looked after in England including adoption: 2018 to 2019. Online:
Highlighting the challenges of the transition to Universal Credit and how it impacts housing - Sam Pannell, Rentstart
When the Government announced a new structuring of the benefit system, many in the social sector were intrigued. They planned to bring all the benefits under one ‘umbrella’. In principle the system is an excellent one, and the process of applying is less complicated and more user friendly than the old way. But unfortunately, the creases continued to emerge for us, and when transitions to Universal Credit go wrong it creates social injustices and pressures for its clients which can threaten their homes, jobs and security. It is one thing to say that the system will adapt, but at what cost?
"When transitions to Universal Credit go wrong it creates social injustices and pressures for its clients which can threaten their homes, jobs and security."
The initial challenge from Universal Credit came through the ‘up to five week delay’ to set someone up on the system. Thankfully we had some reserves which meant we could wait for the rent to appear later on, but
for many clients with private rented sector landlords this created a struggle. At best this has created friction and trust difficulties between tenants and landlords, and at worst it creates an insurmountable barrier to the private rented sector in an already competitive market. Universal Credit created budgeting loans to try and negate this, but should we really encourage a culture of credit for some of the most vulnerable in society? The difficulty of months of future payment cuts to cover the loan arguably just extends the initial struggle.
Then came the second hurdle. As a homelessness charity, one of our biggest attractions to landlords is our offer of guaranteed rent, which means we rely on rental income from clients in order to keep delivering our services. As such, the direct payment option is always something we require, ensuring the client’s rent is paid on time. This option was covered with Universal Credit by a ‘UC47 submission’ and seemed rather simple. In reality, the UC47 form can take over one month to be set up, which means that the first month’s rent is nearly always paid directly to the tenant.
For many of the most vulnerable adults, some with addictions, others with limited financial literacy or access to internet banking or bank statements, a £600 payment can disappear in days. Couple this with the initial five-week registration delay, which at worst has meant that clients received three month’s rent directly. This risks immediately putting the tenant into a situation where their tenancy is at risk almost as quickly as it began and creates a logistical and ethical nightmare for local charities like ourselves. Unfortunately, when this happens the landlord (us) cannot claim back this money. There is an option to ask Universal Credit to deduct arrears payments from their allowance, but this has to be done with the permission of the tenant. Put short, if we have to evict due to Universal Credit delay-related arrears, we pick up the bill.
One of the selling points of Universal Credit was that with their new sliding scale for income, everyone truly should be better off in work than remaining on benefits. It made sense that the new system, linked to an NI Number would automatically allocate and adjust funds depending on how many hours the person worked. The problem we have found is that while the sliding scale of ‘income vs amount of benefit payment’ exists, we as a charity do not have access to it. This has made it incredibly hard to advise clients on how employment will actually impact their housing or personal payment. Therefore, the uncertainty remains, and where there is uncertainty, we have found that the past ‘you’re better off on benefits’ comes back to stop them from taking the risk into employment. It also makes it very hard for us as a support agency to push clients to take that first step, when we cannot tell them for sure it won’t financially impede them.
The final factor we have experienced is that while Universal Credit was meant to remove the need to go to the council, the nature of the LHA rate in Surrey means that clients nearly always have a deficit between their rental figure and their Universal Credit payment. As a result, they have to seek support from the local council again through a Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP), complicating the process rather than simplifying it. Whilst this does create a bit of admin, the biggest threat is again to client housing. By nature, the DHP is discretionary, which means it is never guaranteed. Secondly, you can only get a DHP with proof of your tenancy agreement. This means the tenant has to take a tenancy they cannot afford in the hope that the council will help them. Unfortunately, with a high LHA rate also comes the risk of the benefit cap, which again can cause financial disadvantage to clients. Despite the government increasing the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rate to support clients during the COVID-19 pandemic, this pushed many of our clients, especially the older single adults or those with children, over the benefit cap, meaning the automated Universal Credit system actually reduced their personal payment by an average of £200. Those affected therefore had to… you guessed it… go back to the council and apply for a DHP to cover them for the money they had lost.
I think we at Rentstart all see the potential of Universal Credit. I was comforted by a Universal Credit representative at the National Youth Homelessness Conference, who explained the system is built to adapt, and that over time the system would grow into the vision we all hoped it would be. However, for people at the sharp end of society, any issues experienced immediately undermine their financial security and threaten their homes, health, and lives. We as a charity have also lost thousands of pounds of rent which simply cannot be recovered. We feel that over time the situation is improving, as we start to create valued links with DWP contacts and get a feel for how to avoid previous pitfalls. But the question still remains – is it acceptable that charities working to support the most vulnerable in society should have to second-guess a system at potential detriment to themselves and their clients?
Supporting the Transition Away from Homelessness - Bill Tidnam, Thames Reach
Thames Reach works to end rough sleeping in London. Over the past ten years we have seen the numbers of people coming onto the street double, and while numbers were beginning to drop before the pandemic they are still high, and most significantly, the flow onto the streets remains troublingly high. This is mitigated to some extent by outreach teams’ effectiveness at finding new rough sleepers and getting them off the streets quickly with an option identified.
"Over the past ten years we have seen the numbers of people coming onto the street double."
But this system has changed over the last few months. We have seen an increase in new rough sleepers, driven by the breakdown of informal arrangements, such as the sofa in return for a contribution to rent, or the bed in a shared room above a café; this has been driven by the collapse of much of the service economy. The pandemic has meant that new rough sleepers are quickly offered hotel or temporary accommodation as part of the government’s ‘Everyone In’ initiative, but there is often little capacity to take the next step: an assessment leading to the quick identification of a longer-term route away from the streets.
We know that quick intervention to prevent and quickly divert people away from street homelessness is crucial; living on the streets is damaging and dangerous, and the longer that a person is on the street, the longer and more difficult the recovery.
"Quick intervention to prevent and quickly divert people away from street homelessness is crucial; living on the streets is damaging and dangerous."
A group disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and who have also been a key demographic in increasing rough sleeping figures over the past nine years, are EEA (including EU) nationals, many of them from the so-called accession countries and particularly Romania and Poland but also from more established EU members such as Portugal and Ireland.
Based on information collected by outreach workers throughout the year, CHAIN (Combined Homelessness and Information Network) figures show numbers of EEA nationals rough sleeping in London steadily increasing from 39% of the 6,437 total in the year 2012/13, to a peak of 46% of a 8,096 total in 2015/16. In the most recent years for which we have full figures, 2018/19, total numbers were up to 8,855, and 38% were EEA nationals. This rise in EEA rough sleepers did not start in 2013, but there are close links with the government’s desire to be seen as ‘tough on immigration’, and the derogation from EU regulations that allowed our government to withhold any sort of public funds from EEA citizens.
There is a familiar trope that sees EU migrants and Romanians in particular as freeloaders, driven by a desire to exploit British generosity in the areas of health benefits and housing. In practice, this is not what we see. More than half the EU nationals seen on the streets were not new to the UK, and were reported as having been in the UK for at least a year. They are likely to have worked, usually in low paid and insecure jobs, and they are more likely to have been exploited by unscrupulous employers, who don’t pay taxes (or indeed wages). It’s likely that many of them would be entitled to apply for settled status in the UK, however their working lives on the fringes of the employment market make providing the evidence they need to show their working history difficult or impossible.
Unlike many of the people that we work with, whose homelessness is part of a picture that also involves significant support needs, this group’s need is primarily for stable and secure accommodation and the income to support this. They do not generally require the sort of long-term support we are familiar with providing through hostels, supported housing, tenancy support and Housing First. There is a danger, however, that without timely support to secure suitable accommodation, and the means to pay for it, they will drift into entrenched homelessness with the associated damage to their lives and future chances.
"Without timely support to secure suitable accommodation, and the means to pay for it, they will drift into entrenched homelessness."
Back to the pandemic, and the public health response to homeless people has seen around 5000 people helped into temporary accommodation and hotels, procured at pace by the Greater London Authority (GLA) and local authorities to provide a secure space for people who would otherwise be sleeping rough or in shared shelter accommodation to safely isolate. The response from the authorities and from charities was immediate and heart-warming and evidence clearly shows that this decisive action has prevented the high levels of infection amongst the homeless population that was originally feared. Relatively low levels of infection have been seen and these have been successfully contained; those with symptoms have been not only able to isolate but also given first-class health care, due to our collaborative project with Medicins Sans Frontieres and University College Hospitals, with a dedicated hotel that was set up for symptomatic homeless people.
The economic impact of the pandemic has affected different groups in different ways, however, and a group that has been particularly badly affected has been this group of EEA nationals. Clear figures are hard to come by, but estimates suggest that well over 50% of those who have been newly accommodated during the crisis are in this group. We know that a high proportion of this group do not have settled status and because of this will struggle to find and keep housing when they move on from the hotels. Thames Reach will continue to work with them to help them establish settled status, and to help them find jobs, but this is obviously more difficult in a changed employment market. Even those who do find work will find it difficult to pay rent without help from the benefits system, and they are likely to be at risk of longer-term homelessness without this help and the fragile support systems they relied on previously.
Many people from Central and Eastern Europe have already decided to return to their home countries and many more will no doubt do so. However this supposes that they have homes to return to and for many people this is not the case. Many of the people we work with have lived in London for many years and now rightly call the city their home. They have worked hard and have made London the exciting place it can be – either literally by building our city and our infrastructure, or by working as cleaners or in sandwich shops and restaurants.
As we move away from lockdown and towards 31 December and the end of the Brexit transition period, it seems a good opportunity to move away from the divisive politics of the twenty-teens, and think about relaxing onerous and sometimes impossible evidential requirements to grant vulnerable people their settled status. Doing so will remove at least one barrier to security and stability for a group that has contributed so much to London and its communities.