Social Problems and Social Welfare

For many of us when we hear the term “Homeless” the first image that often springs to mind is a person huddling in a sleeping bag or cardboard box in a doorway of a city street. Whilst media imagery and information released by charities can support this picture the problem of homelessness encompasses a far wider range. This discussion looks at homelessness with a particular emphasis on young people – that is young people typically aged between 16 and 24.

In its simplest form Homelessness means not having a home. In this context a home is not just a house, it is a permanent, private roof over your head, a place of security with community links and support. It should be of a decent standard and affordable. (Shelter Nov 2005) The statutory definition used in official policy documents in England corresponds to persons and families who local housing authorities have accepted as ‘homeless’ (Vostanis and Cumella 1999).

How local authorities defines a homeless person is examined in the discussion part of this essay. The full scale of homelessness is difficult to quantify fully as much of the problem is hidden with some people going through periods of temporary homelessness before settling down again (Shelter Aug 2005) – this can be particularly true of young people who may find themselves living on a friends floor for a short period of time before returning to a true home.

Some official government statistics are available however: Homelessness trends published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister reveal that in 2004 204,700 households were found to be homeless; this figure includes (i) households unintentionally homeless and in priority need; (ii) intentionally homeless households; and (iii) homeless households not in priority need. However, local authorities only have a duty to re-house people in this first group which in 2004 stood at 127,760.

Currently there is no requirement to record statistics on young homeless people so it is difficult to measure the full scale of the problem however local authority figures do show that in 2004/5, local authorities accepted 10,560 homeless young people for priority re-housing due to their age. The new Labour government acknowledged that homelessness was a major problem and indicated its commitment to review the legislation relating to homelessness and even hinted at the possible restoration of some of the rights removed by the Housing Act 1996 (Vostanis and Cumella 1999)

As a result the then Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government & the Regions, Rt. Hon Stephen Byers MP requested a report to look at tackling homelessness. Mr Byers acknowledged that a new strategy and approach was needed to tackled homelessness and that the we as a country were still dealing with the results and consequences of decision made in the 1980’s – in particular the number of children growing up in Bed & Breakfast accomodation.

This report – “More than a Roof” was published in 2002 closely followed by the Homeless Act 2002 which built upon and amended the Housing Act 1996 taking the social problem of Homelessness into a new gear. The Housing Act 1996 classes a person as homeless if:- no accommodation is available for his/her occupation; or accommodation is available but not accessible; or a person is threatened with homelessness in 28 days. A homeless person is then only investigated by the local authority if they pass the “Tests for Homelessness”:- Government policies during this period (1980 onwards) have particularly impacted on young people. Shelter Nov 2005) Housing let by social service landlords as well as housing authority property has excluded young people from access to this area of housing and young people haven’t had priority on local authority waiting lists unless they fall into the bracket of homeless 16-17 year olds or care leavers aged 18-20. Private sector housing has been the remaining option for young people but increasingly high rent deposits, advance payments and rental payment itself make this increasing beyond the scope of young people to afford.

Clearly young people were not getting the consideration and support they needed. The Homelessness Act 2002 widened the classification of homeless people having a priority need to include 16-17 year olds, care leavers aged between 18 and 20 and persons who are vulnerable due to them being in care, prison, armed forces or fleeing violence and/or threats of violence. This is a step in the right direction but bearing in mind we are considering young people to be 16-24 where is the support for persons 18 years +?

There is still a significant gap here considering the lower minimum wage and benefit levels available in this age range. Other legislation places duties on Social Services departments to provide for people in and leaving care namely The Children Act 1989 and The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000. What is the impact of homelessness on young people? The “More than a roof” report acknowledged that historically government’s investment in affordable housing has been significantly too low. Council House stock has been depleted through the successful Right-to-Buy scheme but these stocks have not been replaced.

Whilst there has been a required move away from “council housing” towards housing association accommodation, an ever increasing population combined with this under-investment has left a significant gap in the countries overall housing stock. Regional factors are also worth considering – The “prosperous South East” corner of the UK has attracted a migrating population seeking highly paid jobs and affluent lifestyles creating a wealth vacuum of expensive housing and housing shortages in this part of the country whilst to the north and west there is cheaper housing available but not necessarily the people to fill them.

Having said all this, the government acknowledges that simply building more houses and putting a roof over a homeless person’s head will not always solve their homelessness. Figures published in the “More than a Roof” report reveal in 2001 the highest cause of homelessness recorded by local authorities was Parents no longer able to accommodate – 17% of all Homeless people fell into this category. The division between adult and young person would be useful here and it’s a pity the report doesn’t show this but the nature of the reason I think indicates that this like to relate predominantly to young people.

Violent relationship breakdown accounted for 16% and friends no longer able to accommodate was 14% – again these percentages are for all homeless people but will no doubt include some young people within them. So once young people are homeless, there can be long-term effects on many areas of there life. A homeless young person has great difficulties for education and training especially if they are not remaining in one location or are sleeping rough, accessing training is hard and completing training even harder especially if they have to keep looking for somewhere to sleep.

Prospects of employment are almost non-existent from being able to find information about jobs to being able to maintain a job if you are homeless – most employers insist in paying wages to a bank account and generally people can’t get a bank account if they are homeless. Benefit reductions as wages begin make it more expensive to work in real terms and whilst tax credits are improving the situation the time it takes for claims to be processed make the risk of poverty and debt even greater.

Being homeless brings certain health risks whether it is living on streets and at risk from disease or in temporary accommodation with no access to health services. There is also an increased chance of risk taking behaviour such as substance misuse. The Youth homelessness and substance use: report to the drugs and alcohol unit in 2003 (cited Shelter Nov 2005, p11) states that becoming homeless can result in increased drug use and that 20% of young people used drugs for the first time after becoming homeless. A resulting effect of this is begging and offending.

The same research showed that 95% of young people offend during there lives of which 33% related to homelessness. In an effort to tackle the problem the government introduced the Homelessness Act 2002 which went someway to helping some of the more vulnerable groups of people out of homelessness. This legislation also requires local authorities to review homelessness and produce a strategy every 5 years. Supporting people is programme which aims to provide housing-related support to people in certain situations and requires housing and social services to work with health and probations services to address the needs of vulnerable people.

What has to be a better approach is to intervene before a young person becomes homeless – The mediation scheme addresses this and is particularly aimed at 16-17 year olds. Connexions – set up in 2001 – exists for young people aged 13-19 and aims particularly at education and employment – they can also work with careers advice, housing and health agencies to give a young person at risk a personal service that he/she will get the most out of. New Deal packages offer support, education and training to unemployed people age 18-24 after 6 months of job seekers allowance.

This is a good scheme but doesn’t address homeless people not claiming benefits and so there is a potential gap here. The Government has shown commitment to dealing with the problem of Homelessness though there is still more it can do. The approach of tackling the various issues that impact on homelessness as well as homelessness itself is a more positive one. The Supporting People programme takes a big step in the right direction by employing contact with other agencies –a Multi-Agency approach which can give a better service and tackle problems more effectively – and this should be built upon and encouraged.

The old Adage “Prevention is better than Cure” fits very well to the problem of Homelessness. Intervening before a young person becomes homeless supported by strategies to deal with young people who become homeless will help to tackle the problem effectively. In May 2005, Bluewater Shopping centre entered the media spotlight by imposing bans on wearing clothing that obscured peoples faces such hooded sweatshirts and baseball caps. Tony Blair was reported to have supported the move as he announced a Labour crackdown on “yobbish behaviour [which] will not be tolerated any more”. BBC May 2005) Moves like this are another step towards dealing with the social problem of Youth Crime and increasing anti-social behaviour in youth today. Youth Justice policy has developed against increased public concern over youth and crime, political involvement and moral panics – the hoodie culture which led to the Bluewater ban is a good example of this. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 states: “37. – (1) It shall be the principal aim of the youth justice system to prevent offending by children and young persons. ”

The Youth Justice Board maintains overall authority to uphold this aim with the emphasis on “prevent offending” and this is the key message broadcast on the Youth Justice Website “The Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (YJB) oversees the youth justice system in England and Wales. We work to prevent offending and reoffending by children and young people under the age of 18, and to ensure that custody for them is safe, secure, and addresses the causes of their offending behaviour” In the UK the age of criminal responsibility begins at 10 years which is lower than most other European countries.

However whilst in England and Wales a child is defined as a person under 18 years of age, young offenders are acknowledged to have special needs and so stay under the Youth Justice system until they are 21 years old. (crimeinfo. org. uk) It is generally acknowledged that young people do offend – its part of the growing up cycle. Recent surveys have shown that almost half the UK secondary school population have committed an offence although the majority of these young people offend very rarely.

There are in fact a small percentage of persistent offenders which Home Office research suggests is 3% of all young offenders who commit 26% of all youth crime. Whilst media tends to focus on violent crime and anti-social behaviour, more than 2/3rds of youth crime centres on theft, burglary and criminal damage. (crimeinfo. org. uk) The Governments response to these growing concerns over youth crime led to the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 which established the formation of youth offending teams.

These teams were set up to work with young people between the ages of 10 and 18 who had become or were at serious risk of engaging in criminal activities (Davies 2002) Information published by criminfo. org. uk indicates that youth crime does appear to be dropping with the number of 10-17 year olds convicted or cautioned have fallen by 21% between 1992 and 2001. Interestingly however, whilst youth crime has dropped, custodial sentences between 1992 and 1999 increased by a huge 90%. What does this say about crime and sentencing during this period?

The government’s policy for dealing with youth crime is concerned primarily with preventing offending and re-offending and centres around 6 Acts of UK Parliament. The Audit Commission’s Youth Justice 2004 website provides an excellent summary of the main points of each act. As mentioned previously, the main piece of legislation was the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 which set out the main reforms of the youth justice system, the creation of a new youth justice board for England and Wales and in particular the creation of the Youth Offending Teams.

The Youth Offending Teams or YOTS were created as multi-agency partnerships, bringing together representatives from social services, police, health, police, education, substance misuse and connexions. Having such a broad spectrum of resources and contacts under one roof creates enormous advantages when seeking to deal with a young persons offending behaviour – after referral to the YOT, young people go through a detailed and thorough assessment process during which any areas where professional help would benefit the young person can be identified.

How easy it is to simply walk down the corridor to the next office where the substance misuse worker is based and talk through a case, seek advice or make a formal referral. It allows for consistency of the worker involved and a faster and smoother response to dealing with a young person who might at risk. The Act also introduced new sentences, most of which were aimed young offenders, with some sentences such as Parenting Orders, which aim to give Parents support in dealing with their child’s offending.

The courts are keen to emphasise that these are not merely a punishment but are designed to provide Parents with a support mechanism. Another area addressed by this act was the non-statutory cautioning system which was previously down to the discretion of local police authorities and varied across the country. This was abolished and replace with a 2 stage reprimand and final warning scheme. The government is keen to promote the concept of restorative justice and the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 extended the application of Restorative Justice to young offenders by way of a Referral Order sentence.

This order is given to young offenders pleading guilty on their first appearance in court and involves the young person and his/her parents attending a Young Offender Panel. These Panels are made up of 2 upstanding members of the community and a YOT representative who, together with the young person discuss the offence and the offending behaviour and draw up a Youth Offender Contract of activities which the young person agrees to undertake during the term of their order. The nature of the order means that once successfully completed there is no entry on the young person’s criminal record relating to that offence.

It can be seen as an introduction to the criminal justice system which may have a strong influence on a young persons offending behaviour but will leave no permanent repercussions for their future. An order of this nature may be enough to change a young person’s behaviour permanently and since there is often an element of restorative justice in the form of reparation to the victim of the offence and victim awareness work, it serves as a wake up call for the young person.

Restorative Justice also requires that the young offender take responsibility for their offending behaviour and the consequences that result from it. Having said that however, because of the streamlining of cautioning and the culture we seem to find ourselves in situations where any offence no matter how minor often results in police intervention; referral orders may be issued for particularly minor offences where in the past a caution may have been more suitable.

The Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 served to consolidate many of the new reforms in particular around custodial sentencing but also made requirements for courts to consider Pre Sentence Reports before making community orders thereby giving additional time to make considered assessments of a young persons situation and needs and thereby assist magistrates in making the most suitable sentence for the offence.

A better approach in my opinion since the government’s priority is to reduce offending and re-offending and so assessment before sentencing can look to address the offending behaviour and take account of risk and vulnerability together with risk of harm to the general public. The Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 continued to consolidate reforms and made changes to sentences aimed at offenders approaching adulthood such as probation orders and also amended police powers to reprimands and final warnings in the presence of appropriate adults and/or parents.

The Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 dealt with curfew orders and amended conditions for remand or committal of young offenders to custody for serious or repetitive offending, The Criminal Justice Act 2003 addresses a number of areas but in particular introduces Individual Support Orders which targets young people on Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and requires them to undertake education related activities.

Anti-social behaviour orders seem to have become the ‘golden ticket’ for local authorities to deal with unruly young people. Apart from being issued by the court – the anti-social behaviour process can be initiated by local authorities as an anti-social behaviour contract which places specific requirements on a young person. If the conditions are broken the authority can take the matter before a court to obtain an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) which at this time is a civil proceeding.

Should the order be broken criminal charges can result even though the young person may not have been charged with a criminal offence. Implications of ASBO’s can be far reaching and long lasting – affecting a young persons ability to secure employment, housing or even travel abroad on holiday to certain countries such as USA. With the ASBO turning into such a powerful means of affecting a young persons life for potentially many years I feel the whole ASBO procedure needs to be reviewed.

These 6 Acts form the core of the Youth Justice system which serves the government’s primary goal of tackling the problem of youth crime, young peoples offending behaviour and reducing instances of re-offending, supporting young people through very difficult times in their lives and promoting a system of Restorative Justice where victim awareness, reparation and mediation is promoted and responsibility is taken by the offender for their actions. References Young Homeless People Casey, L. , (2001) More than a Roof: A report into tackling Homelessness [online].

London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Available: http://www. odpm. gov. uk/index. asp? id=1149818 [accessed 1 December 2005] Diaz, R. , (Aug 2005) Housing and homelessness [online]. London: Shelter Available:http://england. shelter. org. uk/files/docs/12514/Housing%20and%20homelessness%20factsheet. pdf [accessed 11 December 2005] Diaz, R. , (Nov 2005) Young people and homelessness [online] London: Shelter Available: http://england. shelter. org. uk/files/docs/14542/ypandhomelessness. pdf [accessed 5 December 2005]

Vostanis, P. and Cumella, S. (eds) (1999) Homeless Children, Problems and Needs. London: Jessica Kingsley Youth Crime Audit Commision (2004) Youth Justice 2004: A review of the reformed youth justice system. [online] London: Audit Commision. Available:http://www. auditcommission. gov. uk/reports/NATIONAL-REPORT. asp? CategoryID=&ProdID=7C75C6C3-DFAE-472d-A820-262DD49580BF&SectionID=sect74 [accessed 8 December 2005] BBC News (2005) Call to Boycott ‘hoodie’ ban mall [online] London: BBC. Available: http://news. bc. co. uk/1/hi/england/kent/4545657. stm [accessed 11 December 2005] Davies, M. (ed), (2002) The Blackwell Companion to Social Work. Oxford: Blackwell (2nd Edition) Youth Crime factsheet Youth Crime [online] Available:http://www. crimeinfo. org. uk/servlet/factsheetservlet? command=printablefactsheet&factsheetid=65&category=factsheets [accessed 5 December 2005] Youth Justice Board Homepage [online] Available: http://www. youth-justice-board. gov. uk/YouthJusticeBoard/ [accessed 07 December 2005]