Many thanks to Centrepoint for this guest piece on youth work and youth homelessness.

At Centrepoint, we see young people at the sharp end of a crisis every day. Family breakdown, struggles with mental health, and problems with gangs and youth violence are all factors too commonly wrapped up with youth homelessness. These struggles have been exacerbated by cuts to services for young people, especially early intervention services.

Almost two thirds of the 16-25s that Centrepoint supports come to us after having to leave their family home, and an increasing number of the young people we support are care leavers with nowhere else to go. These young people are among the most vulnerable members of our society, and are unable to rely on the support and assistance that many of their peers can.

A rapidly growing set of issues within our services is that of gangs, violence and criminal exploitation. Homeless young people, already in a state of vulnerability and isolation, are at heightened risk of getting caught up illegal activity and face being targeted by criminal gangs for exploitation.These gangs are able to work within the growing void left by cuts to preventative services, like youth work, which provide children and young people with suitable adults and role models whom they can form trusted relationships with.

This exploitation can include running drugs across the country, having accounts used for fraud and money laundering, and being subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

Gang rivalries can make large areas of towns and cities inaccessible, closing off access to jobs and opportunities and leaving homeless young people unable to move on from hostels and supported accommodation.

Youth violence can also lead to young people losing a place to live; we hear stories of those who have to leave their family home due to gangs threatening them and their families, and where crime and antisocial behaviour has led to family breakdown and eviction. Centrepoint is conducting a new piece of research to understand the links between homelessness, violence and criminal exploitation – and we are keen to hear from any youth professionals with experience in this field.

You can find out more about the research and how you can help here. Keeping young people safe from gangs and exploitation is also a key focus of our national conference, taking place in Coventry on the 21 March this year. Experts from Redthread and Catch22, national charities tackling youth violence, will be leading a workshop on identifying young people at risk of involvement and effective ways of keeping them safe.

You can find out more about our conference and book your tickets here. 

Of course involvement in violent and criminal activity is, like youth homelessness, the result of a complex interplay of factors, ranging from poverty and exclusion to peer groups and poor mental health. However, speaking to both young people and practitioners a common theme keeps recurring – the lack of quality youth services and opportunities available for young people before they reach crisis point.

For example, the ‘Safer Lives Survey’ in the recent interim report of the Youth Violence Commission asked the following question:

‘If there was one thing you could change that you think would make young people safer, what would it be?’

Over 2,200 young people responded, with the most popular response being ‘the provision of more youth centres, sports clubs and other youth activities in their local areas’.

As well as giving critical respite to parents and carers, and providing a place for young people to congregate other than on the streets, staffed youth services can offer advice and support for young people on a range of issues, from employment and education through to housing and mental health. They provide safe spaces for non-formal education, and are key in providing personal and social development that is so beneficial to an individual, their community and society.

Youth services also provide a crucial first step that can help prevention of so many other needs later on in a young person’s life.

One Centrepoint young person, in discussing reasons why he became homeless after family breakdown, spoke about the closure of his local youth centres:

‘Those places were good because people got together. Your friends were there. There were things to do instead of just roaming the streets. Now parents just worry. They’re fretting that you’re going to get stabbed.’

Centrepoint staff and key workers are on hand to support young people and keep them safe as they move on from homelessness, but access to quality youth work has a part to play in making sure they don’t become homeless in the first place.

That’s why Centrepoint is supporting calls to ensure that quality youth work is available to all young people across the UK.Without the support, advice and guidance that committed youth workers can offer we fear that more young people will end up in crisis situations – whether that be losing a job, a place to live or worse.

Billy Hardy – Policy and Research Officer, Centrepoint

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