Naomi grew up in a family of “frontline workers.” As they could not afford a house, they lived outside of the city until she turned 15. At that age, she was moved into state care due to complex and traumatic family situations. She started studying with the help of public funding and small jobs, but the Covid crisis left her jobless and meant she had to move back in with her parents. Eventually, conflicts at home become unbearable and Naomi leaves.
Without qualifications, she struggles to find jobs. She becomes homeless but tries to avoid the streets. For years, she is on a waiting list for social housing and for food distribution, having to rely on emergency solutions and assistance from NGOs.
This is an invented profile, but representative of what cities report more and more often. Youth homelessness is increasing in cities across Europe and has been made worse by significant recent crises, including the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the increased cost of living and unaffordable housing.
For cities, these trends are concerning, given the known long-term consequences for people who experience homelessness at a young age. Addressing youth homelessness is essential to breaking the lifelong cycle of chronic and repeated homelessness, and to investing in young peoples’ futures. It is also a key factor in the European Union’s overall ambition to end homelessness by 2030.
To respond to the growing crisis, Eurocities has developed a major new report – Ending youth homelessness in cities – which outlines the vision and practices of cities to combat youth homelessness, and the ambitious actions that need to be taken at EU, national and local levels of government to bring about change.
“Youth homelessness tells the stories of traumas and family breakdowns, as well as inadequate services and policies,” explains Solene Molard, Policy Advisor at Eurocities and author of the report. “And also a failure to carry out prevention that focuses on those most at risk,” she adds.
“But this report is also a cause of hope, full of inspiring examples from cities that are going above and beyond to change their ways.”
Youth #homelessness is rising in cities across Europe.
To respond to the crisis, cities are calling for more EU & national funding for social measures focused on youth health, education & jobs, and investment in affordable housing.
— Eurocities (@EUROCITIES) November 10, 2023
The report, which gathers data provided by 29 cities from the Eurocities network, outlines what is causing youth homelessness in cities across Europe and the positive steps local municipalities are taking to address this significant issue and its complex challenges.
It also provides several recommendations about how all levels of government, including the EU institutions, national government and municipalities, can work together to address the issues that are causing youth homelessness.
A phenomenon increasingly affecting the most vulnerable
When it comes to identifying EU-wide data on youth homelessness, the situation is challenging. Levels of youth homelessness reported by cities vary greatly, with numbers ranging from a few dozen to over a thousand. While many cities have systems in place to collect data on homelessness, there is no unified EU-wide definition of homelessness or clear methodology for collecting data on it. This makes it difficult to compare data between cities and countries.
Despite these difficulties, the Eurocities report has identified several key trends, one of which is particularly clear: homelessness is on the rise among young people and many cities expect this trend to get worse in the coming months, or even years.
In Dublin, for example, the number of homeless young people increased by 50% in the past year, and in Madrid there has been a 10% increase since 2021.
Using the data provided by cities, the report presents the main profiles of youth experiencing homelessness, with 96% of cities saying that foster care leavers are particularly at risk. Most young homeless people have specific additional challenges in common during the key period of transition to adulthood and independence, such as leaving school and struggling to find employment, being released from prison, or arriving in a different country.
Among the drivers that push young people into homelessness, 92% of cities highlight the impact of unaffordable housing linked with insufficient income and the cost of living crisis. Cities also see signs of more young people ‘sofa surfing,’ which often precedes other forms of homelessness. While only four cities (Bratislava, Dublin, Lyon and Toulouse) reported having homeless students, this seems to be an emerging trend in several municipalities with attractive universities.
According to the report, mental health and substance misuse are also key driving factors of youth homelessness. Substance misuse “often comes in the form of self medication for health issues and particularly mental health,” adds Molard. But younger patients often struggle to adhere to traditional health services. Several cities, such as Bialystok and Zaragoza, report a rising share of young people displaying symptoms of poor mental health.
The report finds that mental health issues are on the rise among younger individuals. According to local data, 96% of cities say that substance misuse is a main driver of youth homelessness, while 79% of cities point to health issues, including mental health issues.
The impact of global crises
The report explains that the different crises Europe has recently faced, or is still facing, are significant factors in the escalating rates of homelessness, particularly among young people.
The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened a variety of pre-existing challenges and risks, resulting in increased vulnerability among young people. Lockdowns led to job losses, particularly among young people in precarious jobs, impacting their ability to pay bills. Record numbers of young people had to rely on food aid for survival. Dropping out of school and lack of socialisation during lockdowns also put them at increased risk of homelessness, especially when combined with mental health issues.
The sharp rise in inflation levels and the subsequent cost-of-living crisis are mentioned by almost all cities as major contributors to the heightened levels of homelessness. They not only affect rent levels but also costs of services, food, and other necessities. In a majority of countries, income levels are not rising, reducing young people’s disposable income and forcing them to compromise between rent, food, energy bills, etc. Their decreased budget also reduces their capacity to secure housing, particularly in highly competitive markets.
Many European cities also see a connection between increasing numbers of migrants, and the national policies governing migration, and the rise in youth homelessness. National regulations can create situations where cities are prevented from providing housing to undocumented migrants.
The challenges are significant, and municipalities need support from other levels of government.
The launch of the new report and the importance of this multi-level action were the focus of a panel discussion on the ‘Lisbon Declaration to end homelessness by 2030’ at the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum last week.
How can cities end homelessness by 2030?
Vicki Felthaus, Deputy mayor of @StadtLeipzig, @RenaudPayre Vice President of @grandlyon, and @YLeterme, Chair of the European Platform on Combatting Homelessness discuss challenges and solutions to homelessness in the #SocialForum23. pic.twitter.com/8dxlWW2mUl
— Eurocities (@EUROCITIES) November 10, 2023
Speaking during the panel debate, Yves Leterme, Chair of the European Platform on Combatting Homelessness, stated that within the EU, some member states deny there is an issue with homelessness and rough sleeping. However, “cities are the right level of government to make sure there is a holistic approach,” he said.
Vicki Felthaus, Deputy Mayor of Leipzig, stressed the need for help to prevent youth homelessness. “All of these young people are at the front of our door, but we do not have the common ground to build all the houses that we need,” she explained. “We need help on this. We need a direct line to the EU and its funding to build houses that will provide affordable living. Migrants are coming every day and we do not have the means to give them accommodation.”
Identifying the causes of youth homelessness
The report identifies the main causes of youth homelessness among young people, while also providing evidence of measures that cities are taking to address them. Taking this approach has allowed Eurocities to determine the factors which have proved successful when developing measures and policy responses to address youth homelessness.
For those who cannot rely on healthy and supportive family relationships, experience of trauma combined with the challenges of navigating a complex social care system make the transition to adulthood abrupt and difficult. 79% of cities mention domestic abuse, family breakdown and trauma.
Highly tense housing markets and high youth unemployment also create a dramatic combination for young people, particularly those who dropped out of schools or were not able to continue to pursue their education. For those who lack a residence permit, all of these challenges are exacerbated by the impossibility of benefitting from a variety of public services or welfare benefits which are indispensable to living decently.
Cities’ innovative responses
However, the report also shows the many successful actions that cities are putting into action to support the young people affected.
For example, when it comes to addressing the issues of mental health and substance misuse, several cities, such as Glasgow, have developed care and treatment services tailored to a younger public.
These services are designed to accommodate the specific needs of this target group by offering a mix of specialised settings and open, more flexible environments.
Barcelona focuses its outreach work on activities attractive to young people (sports, cooking, bicycle repair) to build trust and link with services. Lisbon municipality joins forces with psychiatric hospitals focusing on young people and ensuring that there will not be a date where the support ends. The assistance is reinforced with employment opportunities, affordable housing and tackling both root causes & providing solutions.
In Leipzig, a youth drug support centre offers counselling sessions for young individuals and their families. In Bialystok, primary care physicians are used as a first entry point in an attempt to limit hurdles in accessing care and facilitating regular follow up. And in Vienna, psychiatrists and psychologists are available in both the housing units and the emergency shelters.
By gathering innovative examples of the work being carried out in cities in this area, the report is able to demonstrate that measures addressing youth homelessness need to take into account the mental issues faced by many young homeless people.
Another example relates to family breakdown, isolation and learning to live independently. Cities such as Dublin, Glasgow, Lisbon, Tampere and Utrecht often prioritise mediation with families and other support networks or even re-engagement when disagreements have escalated.
Dusseldorf has even set up advice centres to identify and address situations before they transform into severe problems, while Warsaw provides intensive interdisciplinary support to victims of domestic violence, and Poznan has dedicated secure housing for this target group.
When family relationships are not supportive of a young person’s recovery from homelessness, cities can help the person to create new healthy support networks of relationships, for example by fostering connections with supportive neighbours, as in Utrecht.
These examples, says the report, show that skills for independent living are an essential part of the transition to independent adult life. However, while most people learn them from family members, it is vital to provide support and education for those who are not in a position to acquire such skills, including finding and maintaining housing, administrative tasks and navigating administrative services.
Recommendations for local, national and EU governments
As a result of the analysis carried out in the report, and ongoing discussions with its network of cities, Eurocities has developed a series of recommendations calling for ambitious action to be taken at EU, national and local levels of government to curb the increase in youth homelessness and work towards ending homelessness by 2030.
These include increasing support from the European Platform on Combatting Homelessness and placing a greater emphasis on youth homeless in national and local strategies.
Key recommendations outlined in the report are to:
- Boost available funding for city governments. National strategies to tackle homelessness should increase funding for cities in charge of their implementation. The accessibility of EU funds, in particular the European Social Fund (ESF+) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), to local governments should also be improved. Exploring further financing is essential, including the Invest EU programme in partnership with the Council of Europe Development Bank.
- Reinforce policies ensuring sufficient affordable and social housing to combat homelessness. The insufficient availability of affordable and social housing puts pressure on groups like students who would not typically be considered as vulnerable to homelessness. It is crucial for the EU and national governments to assist cities by investing in housing.
- Reinforce cities’ involvement in the European Platform on Combatting Homelessness (EPOCH). This platform has adopted national strategies, but local governments have had limited access to it. While cities welcome their role in the platform’s working group on finance, it is crucial that the EPOCH’s new activities for 2024 reinforce the key role of cities.
- Include a youth-focused approach in EU, national and local homelessness strategies. These strategies must recognise that young people face unique vulnerabilities linked to homelessness, such as intergenerational trauma and poverty, and specific challenges related to their age, including mental health and difficulties accessing stable housing.
- Improve data collection on homelessness. While many cities have systems in place to collect data on homelessness, there is no unified EU-wide definition of homelessness or clear methodology for collecting data on it. This makes it difficult to compare data between cities and countries. More detailed data on the age or gender of homeless people is also needed to identify the specific needs of various groups and provide adequate support.
- Develop further integrated approaches to youth homelessness that address its main causes and prioritise groups most at risk. This means providing access to housing, mental and physical health care, education and employment. For these measures to be effective, the importance of homelessness should be reflected in mainstream legislation related to the likes of education, migration, equality and health.
Read the new Eurocities’ report, Ending youth homelessness in cities, published in November 2023.