In 2013-14, Coram Voice helped over 200 children and young people to challenge decisions by Children’s Services which had led to them becoming homeless.
Coram Voice Director Andrew Radford said: “We meet far too many children who have been forced to leave their homes, normally because of violence, or abuse or family breakdown. They have asked their local authority children’s services departments for help, but they get turned away and end up homeless”.
‘The Door Is Closed’ details the experiences of 40 of those children and young people. At the time of contacting Coram Voice, 80% were either still children or had recently turned 18, but in all cases their situation had been known by their local authority while they were children, and none had been taken into care.
Under the Children Act, local authority Children’s Services have an obligation to assess any child who presents as homeless or at risk of immediate homelessness. The child should be accommodated while the assessment is being carried out and, in most cases, should then be taken into care.
Instead, Coram Voice reports that Children’s Services were often telling children to go back to their families or leave them to ‘sofa surf’. When these options aren’t available, children can be passed to the local authority housing department which may find accommodation for them, often in hostels for vulnerable adults and without any of the additional support needed by children in care.
Sending children back to their families with no follow-up support is not sustainable. Sara Gomes, a Coram Voice advocate who has been helping get children housed, said: “Families break down again and children leave home again, ending up at risk of harm and exploitation. And many children who say they are sofa surfing are actually sleeping on night buses, with strangers, or in drug dens”. Children placed in hostels often report that they feel threatened by other residents and so end up street homeless again.
Those who are still aged under 18, and therefore still children, can be helped relatively easily. Organisations like Coram Voice can insist that local authorities carry out a proper assessment, and take the children into care.
For young adults, however, the situation gets worse. Once children turn 18, local authorities close their cases. Without a previous care status, young people do not have status as care leavers, and so cannot access the support to which care leaver status would entitle them, so they remain homeless. If they try to get their cases re-opened, they just encounter a bureaucratic brick wall.
‘The Door Is Closed’ report emerged from a unique programme which sees Coram Voice working with a youth homelessness centre in London and a group of willing solicitors. The programme is successfully forcing local authorities to reopen cases, give homeless young adults their care status retrospectively, and so provide them with housing while starting to tackle the many problems they face as they make the transition from a life on the streets.
In the words of one solicitor interviewed for the report: “The general attitude towards these children who are suffering obvious maltreatment is ‘go home and stop bothering us’. There are Rotherham-type child protection failures… Some local authorities are challenged over and over again – they know what the law is and they know what they should be doing, but deliberately don’t do it. They only start to engage when they get a legal challenge”.
‘The Door Is Closed’ points out that child and youth homelessness tends to be considered simply as a lack of housing, rather than a situation of high risk that can significantly undermine children’s personal development, physical and mental health, and have lasting detrimental impacts on their life chances. Coram Voice is asking Central Government to tackle this by putting pressure on local authorities to meet their obligations. “In the first instance, Children’s Services must follow the law,” says Radford. “If they did that, most of the problem would be resolved”.
A young person told Coram Voice: “Things got better when the solicitor forced Social Services to take on my case. I was homeless. I had nowhere to go. Social Services helped me only because they didn’t want to go to court… I was not of an age to do anything. Social Services should have done what they ended up doing: found me somewhere to live temporarily until I was settled”.