This paper will concentrate on some of the issues in the way social workers can promote social inclusion for those people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. There are several significant factors that can cause individuals and families to become homeless, such as poverty and unemployment. Among the groups who are at risk of becoming homeless are single mothers, ethnic minorities, disabled, elderly and people with mental health problems. This paper will focus on the current needs of single young people in Britain and show how social services are meeting those needs by addressing the issues of social exclusion. The writer will attempt to give a general overview of the various policies and legislation that influence the framework of policy formation, which can have an impact on the issues relating to social inclusion.
The objective is to look at the problem, both at local and national level, which will attempt to address some of the issues relating to youth homelessness. Furthermore, it will highlight the importance of social workers and their roles in trying to promote intervention at an early stage with the knowledge of understanding the importance of multi-agency support network. For the purpose of this paper the term used of ‘youth homelessness’ will refer to young people between the ages of 16 to 25, and it is this particular age range that this paper will feature.
It is important to know what the definition of youth homelessness is, although
there is no clear definition or agreement as what constitutes homelessness. The
clearest definition and one that clearly dominates public viewpoints, is ‘street
homelessness’ or ‘rooflessness’. This can include young people who are sleeping
rough and living on the streets (Hutson and Liddiard, 1994, p27).
Hutson and Liddiard (1994) also point out that many would often disagree with this and would take a much broader perspective in defining youth homelessness to include all those people who are in inadequate accommodation.
Homelessness has been a significant issue for both the general public and central government. ‘A report by CHAR gave an estimate of 246,000 homeless people between the ages of 16 and 25 in 1995’ (Doorn, 2001, p.1). This is a social problem and has been escalating; becoming extremely important in recent policy debates. This is due to a variety of socio-economic factors that were largely noticeable in the 1980s in Britain. Moreover, there had been an increase of many changes that has seen rapid social and political movements. Some of these transformations were affected by a number of policies, where the government closed down very large traditional hostels and replaced them with more diverse range of accommodation such as housing associations (Malpass and Murie, 1994).
The government reformed the social security benefits in the 1980s and replaced the previous board and lodging allowances by income support and housing benefits. This followed with the introduction of lower rates of income support for those under 25 years of age, and removed entitlement for under eighteen’s. It is generally accepted that these social economic factors have accelerated the problem, collimating into a growth of young homeless people. These various policy changes were seen as the cause of the rise in poverty level and the social deprivation experienced by young people, thus, resulting into isolation (Malpass and Murie, 1994).
Young people in today’s contemporary society are faced with many additional problems, such as the large scale issues concerning youth unemployment, and the negative portrayal of being stigmatised. For example, that young people live off the state.
As mentioned above, the government decided to tighten up on benefits for those who fall under the age of 25. This was an additional set back for young people as this further escalated the growing problem of being or becoming homeless, due to their essential needs not being identified and met adequately (Kennett and Marsh, 1999).
The drive to reduce spending on supporting programs is another contributing factor to young people being socially excluded. These trends are obvious in the numbers of increased young people living in poverty, which is evident when taking into consideration declining social benefits relative to the cost of living and declining social housing (Daly, 1996). Nevertheless, there have been many other significant factors that can cause young people to further face being social exclusion. Some of these changes are in a range of policies which include community care, social security and mental health problems, which are all central and in contingency when trying to understand the growth of homelessness (Kennett and Marsh, 1999).
The need to understand the importance of other policies in relation to youth homelessness is fundamental. For example, there is compelling body of evidence indicating that many young homeless people suffer from severely degraded mental health problems. In fact, mental health problems are eight times higher amongst young people living in hostels, bed and breakfast accommodation and eleven times higher for those who sleep rough. This can lead to young homeless people suffering from a similar range of physical problems as the general public, but more acute due to restricted access to basic commodities, including access to health services (Stephens, 2002).
Mental health problems and the surrounding issues of homelessness are not well understood, and evidence suggests that some discriminatory practices can be seen in operation resulting in making young people feel stigmatised by the approach and attitudes of local service providers.
Young homeless people who have mental health problems may perceive the route between accessing benefits and employment to be complex, confusing and intimidating. Furthermore, they may lack the necessary skills and resources, including personal networks, which could provide the appropriate services. There is a wide range of specialist services available, which can provide support, but unfortunately they are not effectively co-ordinated or configured around the needs of individuals (Social Exclusion Unit, 2003).
It is important for social workers to recognise the multi-factors that contribute to homelessness at both the personal and structural levels of society. Social workers, therefore, need to carefully analyse any key trends of those at risk of homelessness. To promote social inclusion, social workers should share and provide information within a local authority. This will enable different agencies to hold useful information on people at risk of becoming homeless. This data could be extended across the board with other agencies that may have to deal with young homeless people. Data should comprise of useful information that should be collective and reflect the needs of young vulnerable people from a wider perspective.
However, all organisations involved must comply with the Data Protection Act 1984/88 and the Human Rights Act 1998. This is to ensure that strict confidential information is only passed on to other organisations that have an interest on meeting the needs of young homeless people. This should encourage effective partnership by working in a collective manner that will try to promote social inclusion (Homelessness Strategies Guidance, 2004). Therefore, this will then minimise the risk of overlooking the importance of young homeless people, and will create a sense of social inclusion within the different organisations. This process will enable different agencies to have a better level of communication and co-operation, which in return will provide a foundation to the start of social inclusion for young homeless people.
It is visible that there is limited or no research data available on how legislation inter-links with each other. Although the emphasis is to provide a safety net for youngsters, but the reality is that there are many existing problems which leaves youngsters vulnerable. Different agencies are in confrontation as who will provide the services and resources. This is where it is clear that social workers should tackle these underlying issues, with a clear goal for an integrated approach and any decisions to be in the interest of the young homeless people (Aldridge, 1996).
The Policy Action Team (2004) suggests there is a structural weakness and the failures of existing policies which fail to provide a coherent national approach to policy on young people who are at risk of becoming homeless. There seems to be no clear policy on who has responsibility for tackling the key issues, at both local and national level. Many of the issues are only being tackled by special regeneration programmes, rather than mainstream services. Therefore the underlying services remain parallel rather than joined up; this system is not designed to meet the needs of tackling young people who have more than one problem. This can further socially exclude young people who find themselves faced with a number of agencies, which are not able to identify the multiple needs (Policy Action Team, 2004).
The Government is recognising the inconsistencies that are apparent within the various agencies in regards to homelessness, and now a new Mental Health Bill is planned to update the legislative framework. Joint Investment Plans between health services and local authorities are now on top of the agenda when looking at the crucial needs of providing inter-agency collaboration (Social Exclusion Unit, 2003). The linking of policy analysis and professional practice development continues to provide a productive environment for multidisciplinary research within organisations. There is a need for social workers to build on and develop new links with other departments such as statutory agencies, voluntary sector organisation, community and user groups, and to increase the level of understanding social inclusion amongst homeless people.
It is of great paramount for all social workers to understand the complexity and the wider issues of youth homelessness. Early intervention is one solution in helping young people to enable them to provide the necessary support, thus reducing the risk of young people from being or becoming homeless. Family conflicts, abuse and stress are all very strong risk factors for youngsters to become homeless. Social workers need to intervene at an early stage to tackle these risk factors; this therefore will allow the ability for social workers to take the necessary steps to prevent the crisis at an early stage.
The importance for social workers is ensuring that young people can stay at home within a safe environment, and if this is not possible then making sure they have vital links with other agencies that can offer young people the necessary support and accommodation. Social workers can be a link between families, friends and other organisations by applying valuable and effective collaboration with the ability of promoting social inclusion for young people. It is fundamental for all those who work in social services to recognise that it is not just about providing accommodation which is necessary, but the ability to provide on going assistance in areas such as employment, health, education etc. This approach should provide the foundation for social inclusion amongst young people (Safe in the City, 2004).
If this support is provided it will give young homeless people the ability to develop a sense of belonging, better self-esteem and improved relationship with other members of their community as well as family and friends. With this professional help and support from social workers, it may bring about changes that make a big difference to young people by making them stronger, and the ability for young people to be able to tackle the risk factors (Safe in the City, 2004).
However, social workers can only do so much as they can only work within the boundaries of the various policies and legislation’s implemented. This is seen in the Housing Act (1996) which when implemented, changed the definition of ‘intentionally homeless. This Act clearly states that if a homeless person has access to ‘suitable accommodation’ and fails to use that accommodation they may be declared intentionally homeless (Arden and Hunter, 1997).
This is misleading, as it is not clearly defined as to what is a ‘suitable accommodation’. The response by government has been isolated and at times conflicting. It is these measures that have been undermined by negative policy changes that do not seriously tackle the issues of homelessness. These policies then fail to concentrate on addressing the problems of young people after they have become homeless, rather than preventing it in the first place (Aldridge, 1996).
It is important for social workers to work closely with all agencies as local authorities have considerable discretion in how they interpret and implement the areas of homelessness legislation. There are many grey areas in the existing system and that someone in a particular set of circumstances might be accepted as statutorily homeless by some local authorities, but not by others. The population of young homeless people who are helped by local authorities is therefore not necessarily consistent between areas, at least at the margins. Therefore it is necessary to examine how these areas can be tackled effectively which will allow all young people a fair and equal access to services.
One way of social workers promoting social inclusion is to allow housing authorities to work both with statutory and voluntary organisations, and go beyond the parameters surrounding legislation and legal duties, and to jointly plan meetings with both housing and social services. This will allow all professionals to transfer their skills and knowledge, and therefore will help to develop a greater awareness of accountability. This determination will seek to address some of the needs of young homeless people in a collective way that will look at the wider issues surrounding homelessness. It will allow all agencies to promote a sense of identity by working alongside each other, and understanding the many complexities that can exist. This will then enable different agencies to think how best to promote social inclusion without them feeling marginalised (Allan and Evaskitas, 1994).
The government is determined to tackle the issues of identifying the underlying problems and the solutions that socially excludes youngsters within the housing environment and the existing policies. The government in 2002 described homelessness as a manifestation of social exclusion, and set out a framework for a future strategy and implemented The Homelessness Act (2002). This Act has far reaching implication for agencies working with young people in housing need. It is not now acceptable to just provide accommodation to young people who have become homeless, but the need to help with budgeting, training and education. A focus is strongly needed of providing and directing other sources of help that will allow youngsters to provide a stable lifestyle that will also promote the importance of social inclusion.
This is greatly emphasised within The Homelessness Act (2002), where it recognises that young people are often vulnerable through various ways such as lack of resources and experience. Also this Act largely formulates an approach for tackling the current issues of inconsistent practice of inter-agency co-operation, which can have a direct cause for not recognising the key issues. This Act incorporates many new measures that provide specialist preventive and support services targeted at particular groups vulnerable to homelessness, such as young people leaving care. These proceedings incorporated in the Act are there to address the causes of youth homelessness by reviewing and evaluating those young people who are at risk of losing their homes or becoming homeless (Shelter, 2002).
The Homelessness Act (2002) has implemented the issues surrounding the new priority need. This gives great benefits and strengthens the duties of housing departments for all those young people who are 16 or 17 years old. Many housing departments have taken positive steps to set up specialised services for this age group with the assistance of social services. This could be in cases, which do not involve violence, abuse or an irreconcilable breakdown. However not all homeless 16 or 17 years are covered by the new priority need order. For some youngsters the accommodation still rests with the social services, this is relevant under the children
(Leaving Care) Act 2000. This clearly states that it is essential that effective liaison between housing and social services, at both operational and strategic levels is necessary to ensure that youngsters are not passed on from one department to the next. It also gives the capacity to recognise their responsibility for looking after young people’s immediate needs. This is where joint assessment is an absolute, to determine the needs of young homeless people (16 or 17), to provide the best opportunity and to ensure firmness of responsibilities. This will avoid uncertainty for young people and give them a sense of progression in focusing on their needs. The challenge is to provide social workers to form a more cohesive integrated service to young people, and with the help of multi-disciplinary agencies who all should have a responsibility and duty to overcome the barriers of prejudice (Shelter, 2002).
Social workers need to identify the need to ‘ empower each and every young person’ by providing and developing better structures and services. Social workers should promote and develop new ways of involving young people in the ways of benefit policy, extension and evaluation of services. More involvement and interaction from young people is an absolute, to enable to explore the issues of transitional models of accommodation for vulnerable young people.
The emphasis should be for social workers to provide a place for young homeless people in secure housing, which is an essential first step in making sure they are able to re-connect with employment and training opportunities. This will provide a healthier lifestyle and in addition will promote stability and also the notion of anti-oppressive practice. The challenge for social workers is to ensure that instead of having to cope with the consequences of homelessness, but build on effective strategies that help young homeless people into permanent housing, and avoid becoming homeless again (The Scottish Office, 1999).
In conclusion homelessness is a very wide and complex issue that sadly has a great impact on many youngsters in today’s contemporary society. Homelessness needs not to be looked at as a personal blame for young people, but more so as a socio-economic issue that has seen an escalation throughout the 1980s and up to the present day by a series of structural intensity. The solutions in place such as policies and legislation have shown no sign of reducing the extent of youth homelessness. There is a need for consistent collaboration throughout the planning, which will allow the providers of services to be more committed to effective collaboration. This therefore will reduce the fragmentation and duplication in service delivery.
The need for social workers is to take a more authoritative approach by challenging the different policies and providing better implementation of Action Plans, this will in turn lead to reductions in homelessness amongst young people. There should be a commitment to working with providers and policy-makers to introduce a continuity of collaboration that will implement the necessary measures to tackle youth homelessness. The fundamental issue for all organisations is to have greater awareness in understanding that homelessness is not just a single issue, but is related to many other social issues such as health, education etc.
It is therefore vital for all those who provide services to have the knowledge and access to information that will enable individuals to tackle social problems in a collective way, and more importantly to address the needs of young homeless people. Policies and legislation needs to be evaluated on a regular basis to ensure that the needs of all young people are being targeted. The challenge for social workers is to build relationships with the other agencies so they can go beyond discharging statutory housing obligations and actually start to meet the whole needs of young people at risk of homelessness. Only then will we might able to see a reduction of social exclusion amongst young homeless people.
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