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October 6, 2022

Young people who spend time in care face greater risks of homelessness in adulthood

Michael Sanders and Ella Whelan

Michael Sanders and Ella Whelan

We recently published a policy paper about homelessness amongst care experienced young people. In this blog, the authors of the paper, Michael Sanders, a Professor of Public Policy at King’s College London, and Ella Whelan, a Research Associate at What Works for Children’s Social Care talk about the shortage of evidence of what works to prevent homelessness among this group, and why the evidence gap urgently needs to be addressed.

Young people who have been in foster or residential care will very often have had difficult childhoods, in which they may have experienced substantial trauma, including the trauma of separation from their parents. Although there is evidence that time spent in care is protective, and improves educational attainment for these children relative to not being in care, they experience worse outcomes across many dimensions than young people in general. 

This includes poorer mental and physical health, a higher  likelihood of using illegal drugs, and a lower likelihood of being in employment, education and training as a young adult. Although many will have strong relationships with their carers that continue into adulthood, supported by government programmes like ‘staying put’ and ‘staying close’, they will in many cases lack an extended family or other support network to support them in periods of economic hardship or unstable housing. 

With large and growing numbers of young adults aged 18-24 living at home with their parents, this is not trivial. As such, it can be no surprise that young people who have been in care are more likely to be affected by homelessness in adulthood than their peers without care experience. Although less than 2% of young people leave care at 18, the National Audit Office suggest that as many as 25% of people experiencing homelessness have been in care. This is compounded by the fact that young people with care experience are also more likely to be hospitalised, or to be sent to prison - leaving these institutions is also associated with an increased risk of homelessness. 

As well as being at higher risk of experiencing homelessness, young people leaving care might be particularly likely to experience some of the adverse effects associated with homelessness and rough sleeping and might have intersectional risk factors (such as being LGBTQ+). To date, far too little evidence has been compiled about what services are available from local authorities to support young people leaving care to avoid homelessness, and whether other interventions that seem to be effective at supporting young people in care - such as the Family Rights Group’s Lifelong Links, or the Fostering Network’s Mockingbird Family Model - have impacts stretching into reducing homelessness in early adulthood. 

Alongside the patchy, but almost uniformly negative impression given by the available data, there is also a chronic shortage of high quality, causal research on what we can do about this problem. This is the case for a huge number of challenges affecting young people in care, or in contact with the children’s social care system in general, and for people experiencing homelessness. For both of these areas, we know far too little about what works to improve outcomes - to reduce the incidence of homelessness, to reduce its duration, and to prevent its recurrence. It is encouraging to see that there are promising interventions, and even a small number of evaluations already underway to close this evidence gap, but it is clear that making real progress will take a concerted effort over many years. Although it will be hard, we should all expect and hope for the same experiences and outcomes for the young people for whom the state has acted as parent, as we do for our own children.

Download our latest paper on homelessness and children's social care.

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