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October 6, 2022

New approaches needed to reduce risk of homelessness among young people growing up in care

Young people who spend some of their childhood in care are much more likely to experience homelessness in adulthood and new approaches are needed to prevent this, a new report by the Centre for Homelessness Impact shows.

Our latest report highlights that a quarter of people experiencing homelessness had been in care at some point in their lives. Many young people leaving foster or residential care struggle with managing accommodation, food, employment and training because they have lived in an institutional setting, lack a social and financial support network from birth families and have experienced significant trauma in childhood.

The new policy paper demonstrates that decisions to remove a child from their parents are typically focused on outcomes for the child in childhood. However weakening ties between children and their birth families might be a contributing factor in homelessness in young adulthood by removing them from a family home to which young people might return. If this is so, the paper says that the case for removing a child when the decision is a marginal one might be weaker than realised. At the very least, there is a strong case for either further support for young people once they have left care, to help them avoid homelessness, or for strengthening ties during their childhood. 

The authors are 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.

There were 80,000 children in care in England in March this year, and 320,000 children who were either in need or had a child protection plan. The majority are not in care permanently: the mean duration of a placement in 2017 was 314 days, and the median was 140. However, another cohort will be in care until they leave care, normally between the ages of 16-18, and become legally independent. People who have been in care for an extended period and who ‘age out of care’ are at higher risk, the authors say. Young people in care are much more likely to experience mental illness and poorer physical health, are more likely to use illicit drugs, more likely to be LGBTQ+, and less likely to be in employment, education and training as a young adult, which are associated with a higher risk of homelessness. 

Dr Lígia Teixeira, chief executive at CHI, said: ‘It is tragic that young people who grow up in difficult circumstances and spend part of their childhood in care go on to have a much higher risk of experiencing homelessness in adulthood. This heightened risk should be taken into account when decisions are made to place a child in care.

‘There is an urgent need for more robust data and better evidence of what works to prevent homelessness among people who spend time in care in the UK, particularly at the point when because of their age they move from foster or residential care to independent living. This is why we will be conducting two evaluations of interventions to reduce homelessness among young people leaving care, including by giving an additional sum of money to help manage the transition to independent living.’

The report shows there is a shortage of high quality, causal evidence on how to prevent or end homelessness for young people leaving care. The paper does, however, highlight a small number of promising interventions, including: 

Targeted Services: A study in San Francisco found that a programme that particularly focused on supporting housing outcomes for young people leaving care had better outcomes than young people just receiving a more ‘standard’ model of support.

Staying put: ‘Staying put agreements’ allow young people to be supported to remain with the foster carers between their 18th and 21st birthdays. An evaluation of 11 pilots concluded that young people who stayed put were more likely to be in employment, education, or training than young people who did not stay put. A more rigorous evaluation that focuses on homelessness is needed. 

Lifelong Links: The intervention, developed and delivered by the Family Rights Group, aims to ensure that a child in care has a positive support network around them into adulthood. A coordinator works with a child to find out who is important to them, who they would like to be back in touch with and who they would like to know. The coordinator searches for these people, using a variety of tools and techniques, and then brings them together to make a plan of support with, and for, the child. 

Mockingbird: This model, delivered by The Fostering Network, aims to change the structure of fostering services, by creating a ‘hub and spoke’ model of foster carers, where a hub foster carer can offer support for the network of foster carers around them. This aims to create an ‘extended family’ network for young people in care - giving them somewhere to go if they have a disagreement with their foster carers, allowing them to be part of a wider network of young people even after they leave care.

Download the report.

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