In the past few years, cities have witnessed the vulnerability of many young people when it comes to homelessness.
From its most extreme forms, like rough sleeping, to more hidden circumstances, such as couch surfing, experiencing homelessness will have long-term consequences for these young individuals. But their age also means that specific services, adapted to their needs and circumstances, must be developed.
From emergency accommodation with volunteer families, to widening the net for social workers, to making ‘housing first’ a local priority, cities all over Europe are finding ways to tackle a crisis in homelessness that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis, squeezed housing markets and the increased cost of materials for new homes. Below, we compare the issues facing Glasgow, Gothenburg, The Hague, Lyon and Madrid, and the approaches these cities are taking to solve youth homelessness.
These findings were gathered at a recent mutual learning event organised by Eurocities and hosted by Gothenburg, and published in a report that can be read here.
Fighting homelessness in Gothenburg
Since 2015, Gothenburg has managed to reduce homelessness significantly. According to Nina Miskovski, Deputy Mayor of Gothenburg, this is primarily due to implementing a dedicated local strategy with clear objectives (the first homelessness plan dates from 2015).
Another vital element was the increased housing stock and allocation of flats, combined with increased counselling for finding housing. A decisive contributing factor, however, not in the control of the city, was the reduced reception of migrants and refugees.
Before implementing those actions, Gothenburg collected data on the number and profile of people experiencing homelessness. The results identified two very distinct profiles. First, single households, primarily men, who often struggle with addiction and mental health issues. Second, families with children in which the parents were often born abroad. They usually do not have specific social issues other than being unable to afford a home.
How to prevent homelessness?
To further reinforce the progress, the 2020-2022 strategy focuses mainly on prevention through outreach and avoiding evictions, and the availability of housing (providing housing for all homeless people, fostering long-term solutions, and mobilising the regular housing market).
Even before the end of the implementation period, the city has reached its main objectives. Homelessness and acute homelessness, including among children, has decreased. More people have their own homes. And while being more successful, the city has also managed to decrease the costs of its services.
Youth of Glasgow
Glasgow has the second highest rate of homelessness in Scotland (9.8 per 100,000 inhabitants) despite a broad partnership to implement ambitious progressive policies. In 2021-22, 21% of all statutory homeless applications were under 26 years old, and 48% were women.
There is no single cause for youth homelessness, but the main technical reason for their situation is family relationship breakdown. Vulnerabilities are often multiple and reinforce each other (adverse childhood experiences, substance misuse, exploitation, cognitive impairment, etc).
In its work, the city of Glasgow has developed specific pathways for young people to adapt to their age and developmental stage, integrating gender-sensitive practices and trauma-informed support. But Glasgow’s ambition is to support young people as early as possible to prevent any homelessness spell which would have lasting damaging consequences on the young individual’s life.
One of the ideas is to implement services that would be able to spot early signs of homelessness and integrate support on how to keep a flat.
How to attract social workers?
Young people 18-25 years old are particularly fragile in the labour market as well as in terms of housing. As part of Lyon Metropolitan Area’s strategy to fight homelessness through Housing First, Lyon developed a targeted action called ‘Logis Jeune’ (homes for youth).
50 young people leaving the child welfare system get access to a flat and support as long as they need. The Metropolitan Area also experiments with the creation of a minimum income for people under 25 in the hope of avoiding the direst situation.
The challenge in implementing many of the services has to do with difficulties in recruiting social workers needed to manage the support. The training and education of social workers mostly doesn’t lie within the competencies of the city, thus limiting Lyon’s options to act. Additionally, the Covid-19 crisis has strained many people working in this field and left a general feeling of exhaustion and lack of recognition (including financial).
All these challenges made Lyon work on how to communicate the job vacancies better and make the position attractive. Additionally, a solution could be to create alternative pathways to social work, which broad potential candidates. This idea could be complemented with additional staff to keep social workers in key tasks.
Creating a strategy
Although homelessness levels were previously stable in Madrid, the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis are losses of employment, housing and the exhaustion of social protection for many people. Young people were often hit hardest.
To combat this situation, the city is in the process of transforming and specialising the different resources. The city plans to go beyond mere data collection and gather the causes and needs of those experiencing homelessness. Additionally, Madrid thinks of providing jobs or house schemes, services that could be implemented through another proposal, the ‘Youth Homelessness Coalition’.
In The Hague, youth homelessness (18-27 year olds) is a particularly acute challenge. The dire housing market crisis pushes many young people, especially those coming from state care, into homelessness. This, combined with their lack of a solid social support network and mental health issues, contributes to there being no decline in homelessness levels of young people, despite combined national and local support being made available.
The city has been convinced by evidence supporting the ‘housing first’ model, particularly for young people, but is struggling to access enough housing to implement it. The Hague is therefore looking for recommendations on what is possible while it invests in building new housing.
On average, it takes seven years for a new building, and recent and future builds could be further delayed by the current difficulties in finding the necessary materials. Due to this, the city is considering providing a percentage of new apartments for vulnerable groups to do social mixing, renting rooms in private houses or even using boats for hosting.
Young people can become homeless for many reasons: relationship breakdowns with family, a partner, flatmates, etc.; discharge from the health, care or justice systems; lack of affordable housing; lack of employment, etc. Affordable housing and employment will always be the best way out of homelessness. However, some young people require additional support to reach that point.
To meet the young people where they are, Gothenburg provides different types of services, often in partnership with NGOs from the city.
Several youth centres act as first contact points for young people in need. The ‘Värnet centre’ tours the city with a bus to reach out to those who do not come to the centre. In ‘Pop In,’ beneficiaries are primarily under 25 years old. The staff receives around 10 youths daily, most of whom are young migrants who arrived in Sweden as unaccompanied minors between 2012 and 2016. The main issue they express is the difficulty of finding a flat. Staff in ‘Pop in’ link with other support services and ensure follow-up, including finding the youths where they are staying.
Following a housing-led approach, Gothenburg also offers solutions like supported housing. ‘BIA youth accommodation’ is an example of services targeted at young people aged 16-21. Each young person benefits from independent housing, either in group buildings or scattered housing, together with support from staff. Social workers do not position themselves as experts who know what is best for the young individual’s life. Instead, they use the method of ‘motivational interviewing’.
Through open questions, they try to understand and support the motives and motivations of each individual. Supported housing aims to sustain independence and build a healthy environment (including their relationships, working on their future, etc.). Calm and positive expectations from the social worker encourage the decrease of stress and problematic behaviour from the young person. The average stay of 1.5 years also enables the youth to build a positive track record, often required to access a direct housing contract. Longer stays last up to four or six years.
All over Europe, different services dedicated to homeless youth are being experimented with. Kate Polson, CEO of the Scottish organisation Rock Trust, shares some of the services provided by her organisation. Some are an emergency response to an acute crisis like the night stops – emergency short-term stays in a family home that have volunteered their support.
The range of services also demonstrates adaptability to each individual’s needs, for example, by providing single or shared supported accommodation, but also rent deposit schemes or live and work schemes.
On 21-23 September 2022, city representatives met in Gothenburg to learn from their host and inspire new approaches to homelessness throughout Europe. While cities have an essential role in combatting homelessness, successful approaches often require a broad partnership with all stakeholders involved in this combat. Members of the European Platform on Combatting Homelessness had therefore been invited and contributed to the mutual learning, helping to broaden our understanding of the situation by sharing their perspectives.