Housing Benefit Reform: A Further Squeeze on Britain’s Young People

Stephen Donnan 

Image © Kymberly Janisch

As a man of 24 who has experienced homelessness first hand, you will forgive me if I find George Osborne’s sustained and prolonged attack on the young and vulnerable insufferably despicable. I had decided not to watch the Tory Party conference, as my blood pressure is rather high enough without the added smug grin of Osborne and his Conservative party cronies adding to my systolic pressure. However I was unfortunate enough to learn, as had been rumoured, that the current Government is planning to axe housing benefit for those under the age of 25, because in Cameron’s World, everyone gets along great with their non-deceased, wealthy parents who live just round the corner in a five bedroom house.

For me, and I suspect for many others my age, this is one of the many issues that has proven to me over and over again that the Conservative Party are out of touch to the point of delusional malice. A cut to the housing benefit for under 25’s flies directly in the face of the previous Labour Government’s National Youth Homelessness scheme to provide temporary housing to homeless young people in England, a move that was welcomed by charities such as YMCA England and Centrepoint back in 2007. The statistics back then demonstrated that around a third of people who had been declared homeless were under the age of 25, and around a quarter of those young people were homeless because their parents were no longer able or willing to accommodate them.

Five years on and the current administration is planning to push those same people to the brink by removing the one safety net that many young people feel stands between them and living on the streets. When I was homeless for a short time it was not because I wanted ‘more independence’ as Cameron and his Eaton chums would try to depict, nor was it because I fancied the student life or more freedom from my parents.

I was voluntarily homeless because I had no choice, the relationship between my parents and I had broken down so irrevocably due to my sexuality that I felt that running away at the age of 20 was my only option. I was lucky enough to have a few friends that had taken me in for a time, but there were nights that I spent in the January cold in Belfast thinking that my life was over. Eventually, and painfully, I managed to repair the broken relationship with my family and I am grateful that I now have a roof over my head.  

I am lucky, however this isn’t the case for thousands of young people who leave home and depend on housing benefit to start a new life away from a chaotic home life with parents or family. Poverty.org published its findings that as of March 2011 the most common reason for homelessness was a loss of  accommodation provided by parents, relatives or friends. Last year alone the number of those living rough increased by 43% in London, whilst across the UK 10,000 young people under the age of 25 were considered homeless due to being evicted by their parents. Are Cameron and Osborne so absolutely deluded that they think that returning home to their parents is a viable option for everyone on housing benefit?

Not everyone is able to return home, not everyone has parents that are still living or able to physically accommodate them due to downsizing, divorce or illness. There is also the case that many young people who are considered homeless live too far away from their parents and are unable to travel due to shortage of funds, and are left involuntarily stranded as well as homeless. The DCLG (Department for Communities and Local Government) stated that between April and June 2011, 11,820 people were accepted as homeless in England alone, while an estimated 930,000 homes are currently lying unoccupied across the UK as a whole. By unoccupied I do not mean that they aren’t selling or being rented, these are homes that have been left vacant, abandoned or declared derelict by local authorities.

Surely I can’t be the only person who sees a simple solution here? It is the responsibility of Government to make sure those who are most at risk, who are most vulnerable and need help are taken care of and helped to get back on their feet. Benefits provide a social floor below which people should not be allowed to fall. Squeezing the vulnerable will result in record numbers of homeless young people, many of whom have children of their own. Cutting housing benefit, as well as swathes of other social benefits for those who, unlike Cameron and Obsorne, are unable to fall back on six figure bank accounts will result in a social catastrophe. It is time to put a stop to this and demand that our Government do the right thing before it is too late.

  • Stephen is a Member of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and a Gay Rights Campaigner.

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