Youth Homelessness: An Obvious Opportunity for Homelessness Prevention
Author: Adam Spollen, Policy Officer, Focus Ireland.
To mark UN International Youth Day, this blog post takes a look at this youth homelessness from the perspective of homelessness prevention. If we wish to truly end homelessness, as we have committed to working towards by 2030, then we must prevent youth homelessness.
Of the 8,835 adults who are homeless in Ireland today, 17% are between the age of 18-24. Research has consistently shown that the first experience of homelessness is often during adolescence or early adulthood. A Canadian study on youth homelessness found that 40% of the 1,103 participants first experienced homelessness before the age of 16. In an Irish context, 53% of participants in a study on homeless women had first experienced homelessness before the age of 25, while research focusing on youth homelessness in Ireland found the age of 18 to be the most common age to first experience youth homelessness in Dublin.
There are numerous reasons to consider these findings and their consequences abhorrent.
Young people are at a crucial point in their emotional, cognitive and social development, transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. At this stage in a young person’s life neurological development is not yet complete, evidence shows the adolescent brain is sensitive to environmental disturbances which can have a significant effect on the functioning of the prefrontal cortex in later life. Young people are especially vulnerable to risks presented by experiences of homelessness, including addiction and sexual exploitation. In summary, experiences of homelessness at an early age can have very serious lifelong effects.
Cross-sector collaboration makes a difference
Focus Ireland has advocated on the issue of youth homelessness for a number of years, recognising the distinct experience of homelessness at a young age. We are, along with the National Youth Council of Ireland, a founding member of the Irish Coalition to End Youth Homelessness, through which we work together with colleagues from the youth, housing, and homelessness sectors to advocate for young people at risk of, or experiencing homelessness. Cross-sector collaboration has provided us with a holistic view of youth homelessness, its causes and effects, and the measures which can successfully lead to its prevention.
Following significant advocacy, there has been progress in the acknowledgement and recognition of this issue by the State, we have reached a stage in Ireland where youth homelessness has been accepted as a distinct issue. Focus Ireland, as a leading campaigner for a national strategy to address this issue, welcomed the publication of the Youth Homelessness Strategy in November 2022. The Strategy acknowledges that there are multiple causes of youth homelessness, that experiences of young people in emergency accommodation are distinct from those of other adults, and that supporting young people at risk of becoming homeless can help to prevent a cycle of longer-term homelessness. However, in relation to the final point there remains progress to be made.
Youth homelessness as a gateway into life-long housing insecurity
Youth homelessness is a distinct issue which requires a youth specific, developmentally informed response, but it cannot be viewed in isolation from the wider homelessness crisis. Consider once more the findings of the study on homeless women in Ireland, 30% first experienced homelessness as children, and 23% experienced homelessness for the first time between the ages of 18 and 25 – over half of the women who participated in the research had first experienced homelessness before the age of 25. We know that nearly 1-in-5 adults currently homeless in Ireland are between the ages of 18-24, but to truly grasp the implications of youth homelessness we must question how many of the adults over the age of 24 first experienced homelessness in adolescence or early adulthood, how many experienced what we term youth homelessness?
This question should frame the ways by which we respond to homelessness. Through the adoption of Housing First, we have made significant progress in the way by which we respond to entrenched experiences of homelessness, acknowledging the role played by secure and affordable housing in the process of recovery from trauma, addiction and physical or mental health conditions. The adoption of Housing First has been a hugely positive development in relation to homelessness in Ireland, but it is important to consider its role within the wider response to homelessness and how it could be further consolidated.
Making the positive lessons of Housing First available to young adults.
What do we know about the programme and its tenants, and what can it tell us about the need for further intervention measures? Housing First supports adults with substantial histories of homelessness and complex health and social needs. The 2022 National Housing First Implementation Evaluation tells us that the average age of Housing First tenants is 43, with 75% of tenants over the age of 34. In Ireland, the Housing First programme intervenes following the accumulation of significant complex needs including addiction and associated trauma. It is an invaluable service for those who have already experienced chronic homelessness. But we also know that 22% of HF tenants report that they completed no formal education, and a further 36% remained in education until lower secondary level. This finding leads to the question, had the pathways towards homelessness been identified at an earlier stage, such as when educational disengagement became apparent, could the need for a Housing First response as well as the accumulation of complex social needs and trauma have been avoided for some of this population entirely?
It is from this perspective that we should consider the importance of youth homelessness prevention measures, and their role in preventing future experiences of homelessness, chronic or otherwise. Returning to the question of how many adults currently experiencing homelessness in Ireland first experienced what we term youth homelessness? This is what could be prevented by the national implementation of measures aimed at identifying and preventing youth homelessness.
The Youth Homelessness Strategy commits to developing a pilot model for a youth housing intervention under the name Supported Housing for Youth (SHY). The development of this programme can learn a lot from the Housing First model, and its youth-centred counterpart Housing First for Youth, as well as borrowing from other models which have proven successful in an Irish context such as Focus Ireland’s Limerick Youth Housing. The SHY model, and its swift expansion, has the potential to make a significant impact in challenging youth homelessness. In this endeavour, it is essential that such a programme is coupled with effective prevention measures to disrupt the cycle of youth homelessness.
Focus Ireland directly supported 400 young people through our Youth Housing and Aftercare Services in 2022. As an organisation, and member of the Irish Coalition to End Youth Homelessness, we will continue to support the implementation of the Youth Homelessness Strategy, and to advocate for the expansion of youth homelessness services, and the introduction of new innovative measures which have proven successful internationally.
Marking last year’s UN International Youth Day, our youth focused blog post highlighted the risks faced by young people in terms of homelessness and housing insecurity, and the supports and services Focus Ireland is providing to address them – this can be read here.