Did you leave home before you were 21? I did.
Like many young people, I moved out of a family home I could go back to. It was a largely positive move for me. I was looking forward to the future, keen for the chance of independence and autonomy, but secure in the knowledge there would be a place to fall back on if things didn’t work out.
Each year, thousands of 18-21s move out of their family home in a similarly positive way. They move away to university, or to share their own place with friends, or to set up home with a partner and, sometimes, children. While they gain independence, they may remain close to their family and fulfil the stereotype of returning to their family home with bags of laundry, to polish off a home-cooked Sunday lunch, every once in a while.
But many young people find it difficult to leave home. Figures released by the ONS last year reveal that over 50% of 20-21s (912,000), and 26% of 20-34s (3.3m), still live with a parent or parents.
The jilted generation has been hit by the full force of our country’s housing crisis. Falling back on the family home is sometimes the only option for both aspiring first-time buyers and those whose income just can’t stretch to rent and bills. Of course, this includes many of the 611,379 18-24s without work.
In this context, David Cameron said this week, it’s not fair for unemployed 18-21s to get housing benefit. They should turn to their family for accommodation or, better still, they should get a job. If the Conservatives are returned to Government, they will cut housing benefit to all job-seeking 18-21s. Labour too have proposed reforming benefits for young job seekers, which would end the expectation that young people could automatically claim housing benefit. Well, on the face of it, such proposals might seem fair, with so many young adults having to resort to the B&B of Mum & Dad.
But there is a reason it’s not fair. Some young people haven’t left a family home; they’ve left local authority care or been orphaned as teenagers. Some young people, like Leo helped by Centrepoint, flee the ‘nest’ to escape violence, abuse, overcrowding, homophobia, racism, religious intolerance and relationship breakdown. They may not view their departure as a positive move. It may be a terrifying leap into the unknown – but one they have no choice but to take for their own safety, health and well-being.
For young people leaving home in these circumstances, to be told that they’re enjoying better circumstances than a peer living with loving parents in a supportive, comfortable home probably feels like a kick in the teeth.
Are we being fair to deny a sense of safety to young people in this situation? Even if some exemptions are made for the most vulnerable among the 20,000 plus people (at the latest count) whose housing benefit would be at risk, can we be sure that young people could provide documentary proof to avoid falling foul of bureaucracy? How can a parent’s homophobia be evidenced – are they likely to sign a letter saying “I kicked my son out because he was gay”?
Will vulnerable young people, such as those with mental health problems, fall through the gaps? If there is no safety net to keep young people in a home, what will keep them from the streets? How would councils and charitable organisations be able to pay for emergency hostels or supported accommodation? Will those affected have to take any accommodation offered, whatever the risk? Or will they end up in a similar situation to the young, unemployed people in the 1980s, whose rooflessness suddenly became visible in our towns and cities?
Sarah Wollaston MP, a former GP and Conservative Chair of the Health Select Committee, this week said she would not support taking housing benefit from the young and vulnerable ‘because there is an issue here we need to discuss about intergenerational fairness’.
To reach their potential and succeed in life, young people need a fairer start than the streets, and policy makers cannot work on the assumption that all have a family to turn to. Of course, it’s important to regularly review how best to support unemployed young people at risk of homelessness – not simply in terms of financial assistance, but also emotional and practical support. But how are young people expected to move into work or complete college courses when they have no home?
Let’s not make things worse for the next generation by cutting the ropes.