Youth justice charity The Howard League for Penal Reform recently brought a legal challenge against Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s decision to place a 17-year-old girl, known as M, in bed-and-breakfast accommodation rather than accommodate her as a child in need. The Howard League argued that M was “plainly and obviously a child in need” and should have been referred to social services under the Children Act 1989 rather than supported under the Housing Act 1996. The charity lost the challenge but could appeal against the ruling that councils do not need to automatically classify young homeless people as children in need.
Maria Ahmed talks to Balbir Chatrik, director of policy at young people’s homelessness charity Centrepoint about the issues raised by the case.
How widespread do you think cases like this are?
At present there is no mechanism for determining prevalence of such cases. We would argue there should be. The Homelessness Act 2002 placed a duty on local authorities to accept homeless 16 and 17 year olds as a priority for re-housing but many local authorities have insufficient suitable housing to do this. As a result a significant number of the young people Centrepoint works with have been placed in unsuitable B&B accommodation. The problems young people have told us about include: intimidation, violence, and harassment from staff and other residents. Many are placed far away from their communities. Some young people are unable to continue at school or college as they are placed so far away and they have no place to study. There can be dirty conditions and some places have no cooking facilities, this can cause young people health problems.
We have been pushing the government to end the use of unsuitable B&B accommodation for 16 and 17 year olds. In the short-term we want local authorities to ensure that all young people accommodated in B&B are provided with appropriate support and the ‘six week rule’ is extended to 16 and 17 years olds. (Under this it is unlawful for local authorities to use B&B accommodation for homeless families with children for more than six weeks.)
Should councils automatically classify young homeless people as children in need?
Each case should be assessed individually. Homeless young people risk falling between two services – children and adults. There needs to be better working between such services to ensure a smoother transition for young people as recommended by the Social Exclusion Unit report on transitions for young people.
What are the main problems when it comes to assessing the needs of homeless children?
An assessment needs to take a holistic and integrated approach and this is often difficult when services tend to be delivered by a variety of agencies with differing objectives. Our work with homeless young people shows that an effective assessment must not only include a young person’s housing needs but it must also cover emotional support, health, education and training needs and financial support. The needs of homeless young people are often complex and inter-related and these can only be tackled by addressing the whole person.
Are housing and children’s services working together effectively enough?
The Children Act 2004 gave a boost to integration with the establishment of children’s trusts and there is now a statutory duty to work with “relevant partners” to improve children’s wellbeing. We pressed the government to ensure housing was required to be a key member oftrusts but unfortunately this has not happened. Anecdotal evidence suggests that housing is still an isolated function within local authorities and much more needs to be done. We are currently looking at how councils are shaping their Children and Young People’s Plans and this will give us a clearer picture of how they are integrating housing into their thinking. A safe physical space is the foundation on which children and young people (and their families) can build a sustainable future.
How can assessment of homeless children’s needs be improved?
Initially through a holistic approach with joint assessments and secondly, increasing the choice and range of accommodation available for children and homeless young people. This includes increasing the availability of directly supported services, foyers, access to counselling and other forms of guidance.