On 21st June 2019 (Cardiff) and 26th June (Bangor) ExChange welcomed Natalie Roberts from Bangor University to deliver a workshop on the experiences of young homeless people living in supported accommodation.  Findings were presented from a project working with a North Wales based homeless charity, Digartref.

Attendees included a wide array of professionals, many of whom worked in the social housing sector. We were also lucky enough to be joined by a number of the young people involved in the research project.  

Workshop Participants

The workshop set out to: 

•    Explore some of the issues and barriers that young people experience while living in supported accommodation
•    Provide a chance for practitioners to reflect on their experiences and propose appropriate solutions.  

To give context to the specific study, they identified some core features of supported accommodation: 

•    A ‘safety net’ – providing temporary housing to alleviate immediate risk of homelessness 
•    ‘Shared’ house – with young people, often between the ages of 16-25 
•    ‘Support’ – one-to-one support from a key worker with areas such as mental health, living and social skills. 

Group activity: Board game – What would you prioritise when designing a supported accommodation programme? 

In small groups, attendees were provided with a £250,000 (fake money) in which they had to negotiate funding allocation. Each square represented a resource such as  ‘counselling’, ‘bus pass’, ‘small activities each week’, ‘budgeting skills’, ‘CCTV’ and ‘drugs testing’. 

Apparatus laid out on table

 On the whole, attendees chose areas that were ‘Young person focussed’ and needs led e.g. laptop, small activities. The majority decided against spending money on the more authoritarian type resources such as CCTV and drugs testing.  Although, some attendees pointed out that although these could be seen as an invasion of privacy, others may feel safer with these in place.

Barriers and issues 

The workshop then moved onto considering the barriers and issues faced by those in supported accommodation.  Five main domains emerged from the research: 

1.    Mental Health 
2.    Stigma 
3.    Nutrition 
4.    Education 
5.    Employment 

1.    Mental health – “Let down by services” 

•    ‘Staff taking on all roles’ – Due to cuts there is a reliance on hostel staff who are not trained mental health workers. Many attendees agreed with this stating that they just have to “do the best that they can” when dealing with complex mental health needs. 
•    Child & Adolescent Mental Health services (CAMHS) not effective – this was reiterated by attendees and young people. 
•    Autism – hostels not equipped for autism (loud noises/alarms/changes in routine). The limited research and awareness of this can make supported accommodation a very distressing place for a young person with Autism.

2.    Stigma – “systemic in-built discrimination” 

•    “Not in my back yard” – Local communities often had a pre-judgment of homelessness and fear having supported accommodation in their areas. 
•    Landlords unwilling to rent to young homeless people 
•    Stigma from friends – feeling isolated and ashamed 

3.    Nutrition – “poor quality, unbalanced diet” 

•    Limited financial resources as well as a lack of nutritional knowledge means that many young homeless people are consuming poor quality foods. 
•    Food banks: Many are forced to visit food banks who rarely provide nutritional food and further feed into stigmatisation of young people. 
•    Health implications of this span both short term (depression, fatigue, limited cognitive functioning) and long term (obesity, heart disease, cancer). 

4.    Employment – “Contradiction in the system – A job or a house?” 

•    Due to the housing benefit system, young people are often forced to make a choice between gaining employment or staying in supported accommodation. 

•    Attendees also discussed other systemic barriers that are often taken for granted. For example if a young person wants to apply for a job, they are often less likely to be considered if they put down their hostel address. As a result they either don’t get an opportunity or have to find an alternative address of a family member/friend. 

5.    Education 

•    Often teachers are not fully aware of youth homelessness and the issues faced by those living in supported education. 
•    Hostel environment – often not conducive to learning:  Access to resources limited, Wi-Fi poor 
o    Distracting, often noisy
o    Transport difficulties especially in rural areas 
•    Unable to afford school trips, educational supplies > feeling of isolation and exclusion 

 Access to resources limited, Wi-Fi poor 
o    Distracting, often noisy
o    Transport difficulties especially in rural areas 
•    Unable to afford school trips, educational supplies > feeling of isolation and exclusion 

Solutions: Some of the many solutions from the research & attendees

1.    Mental Health
Yellow card – provides a non-verbal cue letting hostel staff know you’re not okay – helps with reaching out when verbalising can feel embarrassing. 

2.    Stigma
More outreach in community and schools to increase awareness and challenge stigma. 
Attendees: Educating those who are ‘fearful’ of youth homelessness e.g. Landlords.

3.    Nutrition 
Weekly shop & cook sessions 
Attendees: online toolkit allowing all information to be ‘in one place’. E.g. APPs such as Too Good To Go who help distribute and utilise food that would otherwise go to waste. 

4.    Employment 
Only have to pay for the ‘rent’ element (not support) if they’ve employment – a fair approach, which would allow the young person to receive the support whilst ensuring stability in their new job. 
Attendees: transition period of 6-12 months for those who are moving on – would allow them to gain independence and stability in their new accommodation in what can be an extremely overwhelming experience. 

5.    Education 
Educating teachers: hostels/homeless charities building links with schools 
Proposal – incorporation of ‘supporting homelessness’ module in teacher training 

A number of other really practical and creative solutions from the research project are provided in the PowerPoint slides. 

Positives of supported accommodation 

Despite the barriers, it is important to recognise the positives of supported accommodation and the key role it has in play: 
–    Access to support and opportunity for skills development 
–    Social/decreasing isolation: new friends, can build positive relationships with staff (who are consistently around)
–    Stability and a sense of ‘home’

The day finished with a quick Q & A session with the young people where they had the chance to share their experiences. 

Final thoughts

The barriers faced by young people in supported accommodation need to be addressed for them have an equal access to accommodation, employment, education and mental health – we can’t continue to force them to choose. External factors at play are much to blame with financial constraints exacerbating the problems and systemic in-built discrimination and stigma denying young people of opportunities they deserve.

Workshop Participants

Many thanks to Natalie Roberts from Bangor University and the young people for sharing their work with us at this practitioner workshop.