Time to Talk about Youth Homelessness - Expert Comment on Homeless Crisis

19 December 2014

Media attention has focussed on homelessness among families and adults, but if we're really serious about tackling this crisis, then we have to start talking about youth homelessness as this is where the problem often begins argues Paula Mayock, Assistant Professor in Youth Research in the School of Social Work and Social Policy at Trinity College.

During the past weeks and months there has been concentrated media attention on the problem of homelessness. This media attention has been driven primarily by evidence of increased numbers of individuals sleeping rough, particularly on the streets of Dublin, and more recently by the tragic death of Jonathan Corrie, a homeless man in his 40s who was found in a doorway close to Leinster House by a member of the public on their way to work. Much of the discussion, debate and commentary – whether in the boradsheets, radio or television – has focused on how to resolve the crisis of homelessness among families and adults. While these issues and question clearly merit attention, there has been little mention of homeless young people, a curious oversight given that young people aged 18-25 account for up to 20% of the total homeless population, according to available figures, with 26-29 year olds totalling up to an additional 10-15%. Furthermore, there is no evidence of a decline in the number of young people presenting as homeless over the past decade.

One of the key features of both academic and media representations of youth has been the widespread construction of youth in general, and specific groups of young people in particular, as ‘problems’. Young people are frequently presented as either actively ‘deviant’ or passively ‘at risk’, and sometimes as both simultaneously. Such representations also shape how we think about homeless youth, a group frequently thought of as a public nuisance because they are assumed to be involved in drug use and/or criminal activity, often perceived as choosing a homeless lifestyle, and seen as not contributing to, or engaged with, mainstream society.

Homeless young people are certainly on the margins of society; they do not have a stable place to call home nor do they have access to the financial and psychological security that typically accompanies stable housing. While there is a widespread perception that young people become homeless because of their drug use or other ‘deviant’ behaviours, the reality is that these young people are very often fleeing from – or are forced to leave – households where they have been dependent on adult caregivers. A significant proportion will  have spent much or most of their lives in State care. Their homelessness is not simply about a loss of housing but also generally entails ruptured family relationships, and the loss of friends and community. These young people are propelled along an early trajectory to independence without the requisite supports to successfully navigate the world of ‘adulthood’.

So, what happens to these young people after they become homeless?

Well, over the past ten years of researching youth homelessness, I have observed that many (though not all) remain ‘in the system’ and continue to ‘cycle’ between hostels and other homeless service settings for very lengthy periods. During this time, many become increasingly dependent upon or ‘insitutionalised’ within the service system where they remain in an ongoing state of emergency without access to permanent housing. Put differently, young people’s continued homelessness is bolstered by a system that arguably serves to entrap them, as emergency or crisis responses become long-term solutions. They do not move to stable housing and, instead, transition to ‘adult’ homelessness.

Despite a decade or more of new policies and strategies, the ‘on the ground’ solutions to youth homelessness remain weak. This is because the system remains fixed on managing rather than resolving young people’s homelessness. The current crisis in the private rental market has undoubtedly exacerbated this situation and sourcing appropriate housing for young people is a very significant challenge for those service providers charged with meeting the needs of homeless youth. However, the problem is broader and is also significantly linked to systems of intervention that remain wedded to a philosophy that aims to ‘fix’ young people before housing them. This notion of ‘fixing’, or making them ‘housing ready’, strips young people of agency and autonomy and also sets them up for potential failure since, without stability of housing, many will become more entrenched in street/hostel life. While most young people who experience homelessness will need intense and ongoing support to access and maintain housing, the majority hold conventional goals and aspirations and, with appropriate supports, do have the ability to maintain a home.

Youth homelessness is clearly a complex social problem. While it would be naïve to suggest that there can be a‘one size fits all’ solution, by continuing to emphasise emergency supports rather than rapid rehousing, we are simply managing the problem. One of the things that we know about the homeless problem in Ireland is that many of the adults, men and women alike, who are currently in the system first experienced homelessness as teenagers or young adults. We need look no further than this reality to understand the crucial importance of resolving homelessness early and ensuring that individuals to not re-enter or remain in the system. If this aim is not realised, our youth homelessness system of intervention will simply continue to be a ‘feeder’ for adult homelessness. We will continue to debate the solutions to adult homelessness when, in fact, many of the answers arguably lie in preventing homeless young people from entering adult systems of intervention.

Dr Paula Mayock recently co-authored a book (with Sarah Parker and Andrew Murphy) entitled ‘Young People, Homelessness and Housing Exclusion’ (Dublin, Focus Ireland).

To speak with Dr Paula Mayock, please get in touch with the media contact listed below