Children in Wales are a member of End Youth Homelessness Cymru, Homelessness affects almost 8,000 young people in Wales per year, according to official statistics.
End Youth Homelessness Cymru is a coalition of organisations, led by Llamau, which has pledged to address this issue and make youth homelessness rare, brief and non-recurrent. To achieve that goal we have to ensure that our systems work for everybody and that no-one is left out. To that end, we recently launched a youth-led research study looking at the links between the care system and youth homelessness. We know that care-experienced young people are disproportionately overrepresented in the homelessness system and Don't Let Me Fall Through The Cracks: Care-Experienced Young People and Homelessness in Wales gives us some clear solutions to this long-running problem. The report provides insights, gained from young, homeless people across Wales, into how care-experienced young people are being let down by the systems that should be protecting them. Most importantly, those same young people have given us the ideas we need to fix these problems. There has already been significant work undertaken in Wales on the issue of homelessness amongst care-experienced young people indeed, the weight of previous writing on the subject is frustratingly heavy, for a problem that persists today. While progress has doubtless been made over the years, there is clearly still ground to make up. That is not to say that the previous work on the issue is not relevant. Quite the opposite: the Barnardo's Care Leavers Accommodation and Support Framework for Wales (2016), for instance, aims to help organisations working with care experienced young people find accommodation, and is clearly a very valuable tool if used by local authorities to help coordinate their different services. A key recommendation from our report was that this is revisited. So, was more work on care experience and youth homelessness actually needed? Unfortunately, the answer is yes: in our research we found, while many care experienced young people successfully transition out of care and live independently, sadly some do continue to fall through the cracks and go through the traumatic experience of homelessness. EYHC principally exists to amplify young people's voices, particularly in our research output. We started by co-designing the research and conducting the interviews with six care experienced peer researchers who had themselves been homeless. We interviewed 27 young people across Wales, with interviews taking place from October 2019 until March 2020. Participants had or were experiencing some of the worst forms of homelessness including street homelessness, sleeping on floor space or staying in other unsuitable emergency accommodation. Lewys, aged 20 explained his experience of being street homeless:
It was in the middle of winter, we were sat in this tent and it was pitch black. I did not realise I had actually set it next to a grass verge and it had rained like mad at night so the tent and everything just got soaked. I woke up to the point I could barely take a breath, I was so cold and I was soaking wet.
Experiences shared by young people like Lewys drive our work on this issue. They remind us of our shared responsibility for making sure those young people in care get a fair deal in life. If a care-experienced, street-homeless young person like Lewys is prepared to share his trauma in order to make life better for other young people, we have a responsibility to listen to him and to act on what he's asking for. One of the big asks that came from young people like Lewys was for some help and shelter when life goes awry. For most of us, who didn't grow up in care, if we had a relationship breakdown or faced a similar major hurdle as a young person, we could go back home, to be picked up and glued back together. Young people who have left care don't have this option. As such we have asked that Welsh Government consider a right to return to care for young people. We're only too well aware of the context in which we make these recommendations - how stretched our services are and how quickly foster placements get filled, but we have to do more for care-experienced young people. They have to be our priority often they've got no-one else. Broad themes emerged in the work mental health challenges (and even greater challenges with accessing help), loneliness, isolation. An overriding sense when reading the report back is that society has changed, but that our care and housing systems haven't always gone far enough to reflect these changes. The average age of leaving home in the UK is now 25 but care experienced young people are expected to leave home when they are just 18 years old (accepting that for some, the When I'm Ready scheme offers the opportunity to delay this). Research describes the cliff edge of a move out of care for most young people on, or around, their 18th birthday whether or not they feel ready or prepared. Alys, aged 22, summed up many young people's experiences:
I wasnt ready to move on from my hostel but I had to go because of my age. I wasn't ready. I have a 24-year-old social worker, who is still living at home with her mother for support, telling me I've got to live on my own. No thank you, love. Go back home to your mother and I'll stay here
Throughout Don't Let Me Fall Through the Cracks- there are dozens more stories like this. Many are absolutely heart breaking. We didn't set out to write something heart breaking it's just a reflection of the experiences that we were privileged enough to hear from young people. They were shared with the intention that we amplify them, to make a difference for future care experienced young people. One young person said "it doesn't matter what I say no one will listen to me". As an interviewer, I looked him in the eye and said the report will make a difference. It won't just sit in a library, it will make a difference. These 27 caring, kind and wonderful young people shared their trauma so we would have the knowledge to prevent other young people from going through the same experiences. The 13 recommendations in this report came from those traumatic experiences and we owe it to those who helped us shape them to ensure that they have an impact. Children in Wales provide resources and workshops to care experienced young people as they transition from care into independence as part of the Getting Ready Project. We are delighted to be part of the End Youth Homelessness Cymru coalition of organisations and would like to thank Jemma Bridgeman, EYHC, for writing this article.