Tam Baillie: Vulnerable youngsters pay the price of austerity

I ABSOLUTELY despaired when I heard of the government’s intention to stop under-25s from claiming housing benefit. What world are our government politicians living in?

What motivates them to target the poorest and most vulnerable people in our communities when imposing austerity measures? And where were they during the last recession in the 1980s?

I remember where I was – managing a direct access hostel for young people aged 16-21 years in Glasgow. It was called Stopover and was a flagship unit, established under progressive housing policies which, at that time, were in the vanguard of providing a range of supported accommodation and housing for young people in Glasgow.

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Like now, the 1980s saw public service cutbacks, a problem of youth homelessness and rising unemployment among young people.

The comparisons are compelling.

For example, unemployment for people in the UK aged 16 to 24 in October to December 2011 stood at 1.04 million, the highest since 1986/87 (according to the Office of National Statistics).

Stopover was a much-needed resource providing a first port of call for young 
people who had experienced trauma in their lives that led to them becoming homeless. The reasons for their homelessness were the same as today: they had left care, most often too early with insufficient support; had been subject of neglect or abuse; had issues with alcohol or drugs; or could no longer cope with a difficult family life.

They were all young, vulnerable and in need of both accommodation and general support. At that time, the running of Stopover was reliant on DHSS (as was) payments, similar to housing benefit paying accommodation costs now.

So what did the government of the 1980s decide to do as part of their austerity programme? They decided that they would debar 16/17-year-olds from DHSS benefit. The rationale was that the family home was the best place – and depriving them of any DHSS benefit payments would force them to remain in the family. Sound familiar?

The young people at Stopover had a choice of either staying in a family home which was damaging (possibly dangerous or abusive), or to leave. However, because they had no entitlement to benefits, they had no means to access accommodation if they were without sufficient income – and that meant living on the streets. So we still had traumatised 16-17-year-olds presenting as homeless, and we still had rising unemployment among the young, making them reliant on benefits to provide a roof over their heads. Sound familiar?

When the policy was introduced, homeless people aged 16/17 were categorised as in “severe hardship” under certain circumstances, and they could then access DHSS payments.

However, it took some time and great ingenuity to pick your way through the system. It placed an additional anxiety on the young homeless people, making the whole process even less humane than it already was. In fact, many young people were not even able to access “severe hardship” payments and faced the prospect of unemployment, no home and no secure future. Sound familiar?

The government of the day had thought through neither the human cost nor the imperative to respond to the real problems experienced by our most vulnerable young people. They blindly championed the case for all young people staying with their families regardless of the circumstances. Politicians were totally out of touch with young people who had, through no fault of their own, become homeless. Sound familiar?

Already, we have 12,282 young people aged 24 or under homeless, according to Scottish Government figures for 2011/12. We cannot let that figure rise. My despair with these latest proposals is no doubt shared with many organisations, charities and indeed local authorities across Scotland and the UK.

In the strongest possible terms, I call on the government to review this ill-thought out proposal which is set to cause immense damage. «

• Tam Baillie is Scotland’s Commissioner for Children & Young People