One morning, when Catherine Geddes was 16, her mother dropped her off at college, informed her that she’d changed all the locks, and told her daughter she would never be allowed to return home.
Catherine, who grew up in Huddersfield, had a volatile family life. Her violent father would drag her up the stairs by the hair, and lock her out of the kitchen. Catherine developed mental health problems and self-harmed. The dysfunction was too much for her mother – who had two younger children – to deal with, and she left her daughter to find a new life for herself.
Now 23 and living independently in a council house near Bradford, Catherine tells me how she relied on claiming housing benefit when she was kicked out of her family home. She moved into a hostel, and her rent was paid directly by the government.
“My housing benefit went to them, you also got a housing worker who would help you with bills, set up your property, make sure you were ok, things like that,” she recalls.
Without this assistance, Catherine says she would have been forced to live on the streets – something that she experienced for two weeks when she was waiting for her accommodation payment to come through. “It’s absolutely harrowing,” she tells me. “And it’s not just that – you just lose all sense of your self-esteem, you just feel useless, you feel like you’re better off dead, you can’t see a way out.”
From Thursday 6 April, the government has removed young people like Catherine’s automatic eligibility to housing benefit. Now, the onus will be on 18 to 21-year-olds to prove that they should be entitled to claim the benefit to a member of staff at the Jobcentre known as a work coach. Otherwise they are expected to carry on living at home.
Homelessness charities such as Shelter, Crisis and Centrepoint say that this will lead to a rise in homelessness, as vulnerable young people who can no longer live at home fail to navigate the complicated new system – and private landlords become less likely to let rooms to them.
The government expects to save £105m from this cut by 2020. It will affect around 1,000 young people in the first year, and 11,000 in this Parliament as universal credit is fully rolled out. The Department for Work & Pensions has issued a list of exemptions, which are supposed to stop young people in precarious situations from losing out.
But it’s not that simple. The concern is that young people will be unable to “prove” their circumstances to a Jobcentre employee. “Some of the things you might have to disclose are very, very sensitive issues, such as sexual exploitation and things like that – things that people might not want to share with their work coach,” Heather Spurr, a policy officer at Shelter, warns. “As an 18 to 21-year-old, you haven’t matured yet, you might not have the confidence that a 30-year-old might have. People’s lives are complicated; they don’t fit into neat little boxes.”
“Most people don’t want to talk about their personal lives, especially young people,” adds Balbir Chatrik, director of policy and engagement at Centrepoint. “Many don’t want to bad-mouth their parents – they probably don’t want to say if their parents can’t keep them because they haven’t got the finances, or are addicted to drugs or alcohol. That’s not very easy to admit.”
Chatrik is concerned that young people will “slip through the net” because they either won’t bother applying, believing they’re not eligible, or they will be unable or too traumatised to prove their vulnerable circumstances.
Young people will also be less likely to find alternative housing, due to the new policy creating a “Catch-22” renting situation. You can’t apply to be exempted from the housing benefit cut unless you have a tenancy agreement with your landlord. But any potential landlord is very unlikely to rent to you unless you can prove your funds, ie. unless you can prove that you can claim housing benefit.
“If you imagine the journey this young person’s going to go on – even if they do have an exemption, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for them, because there’s this negative feedback loop,” says Spurr.
Also, because of this new system, landlords will simply be less likely to let to young people because they are now less able to claim housing benefit. “It’s really hard for 18-to-21s to be able to rent a place anyway, because landlords would prefer someone who’s in work,” says Chatrik. “Now [the new policy] is having a chilling effect on landlords, and they’ll be even more reluctant to rent to 18-to-21s.”
She warns: “Young people will stay in hostels like ours, and they won’t be able to move on. So you’ll have the equivalent of bed-blocking in hostels.”
As a consequence, the number of young people sleeping rough is expected to rise. “It’ll lead to a massive increase in homelessness,” says Chatrik.
“It risks leaving people with nowhere to go but onto the streets,” adds Spurr. “We’ve been warning that this could lead to an increase in youth rough sleeping. While the exemptions are welcome, if you just give them a read, it is so, so complicated to understand whether you’re exempt or not. It’s incredibly difficult for someone to navigate.”
The policy was announced by the Conservative government in 2015, and was a party manifesto pledge ahead of the general election. The DWP worked with charities to come up with the lengthy list of exemptions, and also narrowed the age range for the restriction (it was originally going to withhold the entitlement from 18 to 24-year-olds).
But Centrepoint calculates that up to as many as 9,000 young people who would once have been protected by the benefit will be “left destitute”. And Shelter’s director of campaigns, policy and communications, Anne Baxendale, laments the “sometimes impossible burden of having to prove they can’t go home” that some will now face. “Put simply, many young people will slip through the net and end up on the streets.”
Chatrik believes there is a political rationale to the government hitting 18- to 21-year-olds. “Young people tend not to vote,” she tells me. “They’re a much easier target than all the people who do vote.” She adds that government ministers may not realise why some young people cannot stay with their parents. “They [people working in government] were at home, they could live at home,” she says. “So maybe it’s not as easy for them to see that actually it’s unsafe for some young people to live at home. I suspect not many of them have experienced that.”
Catherine, who now volunteers for various charities and does some work for Centrepoint, feels “absolutely devastated” that teenagers with difficulties like she had will no longer have a guaranteed safety net. “I’m really scared about their future,” she says. “It’s a very young and vulnerable age to be at. A lot of people leaving home or being kicked out are for genuine reasons. You don’t want to be putting yourself in vulnerable situations. Everyone needs stability; why would anyone choose not to have that?
“I cannot understand why this is happening, because we’re the next generation. We are going to be the next generation of workers, of parents, of everything. To give out that message that we’re not even worth having a house – people are going to lose faith in the political system.”