Prime minister David Cameron’s announcement that 18 to 21-year-olds will lose their entitlement to housing benefit has sparked fears of a return of the mass youth homelessness that afflicted cities in the 1980s and 1990s.
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However, Cheshire West & Chester Council has a more preventative strategy, which aims to stop people from becoming homeless.
“Rather than dealing with things when they get to a crisis point, we spend a lot of time trying to prevent things becoming an issue,” says Alison Amesbury, the authority’s senior manager for strategic housing services.
The early intervention project has been running for the past five years. “The council realised that 16 to 17-year-olds were over-represented in the homelessness figures,” says Ms Amesbury.
This youth homelessness prevention work includes financial advice and helping people to stay in their own homes or to find accommodation in the private sector.
One way the council helps individuals to stay put is through mediation. Cheshire West’s FIRM (family intervention research and mediation) foundation project, delivered by Forum Housing Association, is designed to help young people resolve relationship breakdowns so they remain in the family home rather than move out.
Rather than dealing with things when they get to crisis point, we spend a lot of time trying to prevent things
Alison Amesbury, Cheshire West & Chester
The Firm Foundation project was prompted by relationship breakdown being the prime cause of homelessness in the 16 to 25 year-old age group, says Ms Amesbury.
If prevention fails, Cheshire provides an adapted bus with reclining seats and a shower as an alternative to sleeping rough. These ‘safe seats’ provide access a place of safety overseen by professional staff.
Most recent statistics show Cheshire West prevented 1,248 cases of homelessness in 2013-14. This was six times the 204 homelessness cases the council accepted over the same period.
But with such acute pressure on resources, isn’t it hard to justify this kind of preventative work? Ms Amesbury argues that nipping homelessness in the bud makes financial sense. While preventative services cost £1,400 for a potentially homeless person, supported accommodation for the same individual will cost the council 10 times as much per annum. And she believes Cheshire West’s early intervention approach will offer a valuable safety net if the proposed welfare cuts clampdown is implemented.
“Welfare cuts are going to make it hard for young people to live independently,” She says. “This scheme provides an alternative so that young people can stay at home if that is possible.”