A service in south London is providing accommodation and mediation for young people who have left home because of disputes or over-crowding. Amy Taylor reports.
Young people forced to leave the family home are one of the largest groups of homeless people. Until recently, this group would routinely be put in bed and breakfast units. But in 2006 the government pledged that by 2010 no 16- or 17-year-old would be placed in such accommodation unless it was an emergency.
This February, Lambeth Council in partnership with Supporting People set up the Time Out centre in Brixton, south London. The centre run by housing association Look Ahead Housing and Care and homeless young people’s charity Alone in London aims to keep families together and provide a place for young people to stay.
It provides accommodation for 16- and 17-year-olds unable to stay at home because of disagreements with their parents or for other reasons such as overcrowding. It has 24-hour staffing and mediation services on site to help young people and their parents reconcile their differences so that young people can return home.
Young people can stay in the centre’s bedsits, which have shared bathrooms and kitchens, for up to six weeks, giving both them and their parents space and time to reflect.
Winston Brown, housing options development manager at the council, says that before the centre’s creation young people unable to live at home would have been sent to non-specialist emergency accommodation alongside homeless adults.
“Now there’s a more family-focused approach, they aren’t just automatically put in a hostel,” he says. “The whole approach is a preventive one. It’s about understanding young people’s need to develop their education and social skills first and making sure they don’t leave in crisis.”
Most young people are referred to the centre by the council’s family support service after there has been a breakdown in communication with their parents. The centre’s family mediation officer attempts to repair these relationships. Discussions take place in three newly refurbished mediation rooms, which contain modern furniture and colour schemes not dissimilar to that found in the Big Brother house, designed to create a relaxing environment.
The service initially provides separate one-to-one conflict resolution for children and their parents. Once the issues have been established and each side has had time to cool off, joint family mediation sessions take place where each is asked to try to consider the other’s points and reach a compromise.
Follow-up mediation sessions are also offered after the young person has returned home to prevent situations breaking down again.
Mike Bansback, contract manager for Look Ahead, says first impressions of cases can often be incorrect.
“In some you think this will be quite straightforward but then you find out there are issues bubbling away under the surface that will need several months of work. You can’t take cases at face value,” he says.
Five years ago some young people believed that if they left home they would be given a council flat, but as tales of pregnant teenagers being handed flats on a plate by councils now appear less frequently in the press, this idea is vanishing, says Bansback.
“One or two come in saying ‘I want a flat’ but that message is dying out and there is definitely less of it,” he says.
Bansback says that, although returning home may be the correct path for some young people and should be the aim in most cases, it is not always possible. This mixed picture is borne out by the figures – 14 of 27 young people who have moved out of the centre so far have gone home or to live with a family member.
It is easy to see how leaving home permanently might seem like a good idea to a young person at war with their parents but the reality can be very different. Bansback says that, although the young people receive help at the centre with life skills, such as cooking and budgeting, they are essentially left to look after themselves – something many are not ready for.
“It’s a bit of a wake-up call to the realities of living independently and they realise that going home might not be such a bad option after all,” he says.
Referrals to the service are made through the Family Support Service on 020 7926 5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When mediation works
When Shannon* and her 16-year-old daughter Debbie* first came to the Time Out centre in May, the atmosphere was very tense and they barely looked at each other. Debbie moved into the centre and after three separate mediation sessions it was decided to try to get mother and daughter to meet.
Staff were surprised by how the relationship had changed and after just six weeks, Debbie decided to move home – turning down the offer of further supported housing in favour of living with her mother.
Shannon says: “We were at loggerheads and Debbie made a decision that she was going to leave. As a parent, it is sometimes difficult to get things across to your children. When you are speaking to someone else, like the mediator, you can see things from a different point of view. It meant Debbie and I were able to communicate.”
* Names have been changed
This article is published in the 9 October issue of Community Care under the heading Home from Home