One young person a week leaving care registers as homeless, which is a damning indictment of Scotland’s system of support, says Ewan Aitken
Like each of our childhoods, we are born into circumstances beyond our choosing. No-one can disagree with that. It is our stories, especially our foundations, which will stick with us and influence the rest of our lives.
Growing up in care can be a loving and supportive experience – it has saved scores of people from the destitution they might have faced elsewhere in the world. But unfortunately that experience can vary, and our care system is not working as it should.
Latest official statistics from the Scottish Government show that at least one young person a week in Scotland is leaving care, and registering as homeless. For a society which prides itself on being kind and compassionate, this is a shaming indictment of our care system as it stands.
Homelessness has an extraordinarily negative impact on people’s lives. This is well illustrated by a new report called Hard Edges Scotland, which looks at the interrelated nature of severe and multiple disadvantage – many of those interviewed suffered traumatic experiences in earlier life, and typically grew up in poverty. The impact on a person’s health and wellbeing can be devastating – in young adulthood, those with experience of homelessness are much more likely to suffer from poor mental health and substance dependency, and latest research shows that on average homeless people die 30 years younger.
The fact that so many young people move from care to homelessness, and that those with experience of care are hugely overrepresented in those who are homeless, shows that the system must change. No child should leave care unprepared to lead an independent, valued and fulfilling life. It is a systemic problem that has been impacting generation upon generation for too long. And it requires system-changing solutions.
The Independent Care Review’s aim is to identify and deliver real and lasting change to Scotland’s care system to transform the wellbeing of children and young people – conducting a root and branch review, building on what works, and developing new solutions to and stopping what doesn’t.
It is the voices of those young people, and those with experience of care, which are driving this change that will transform the lives of future generations. Young people have told us about how unprepared they felt to fend for themselves upon leaving care; parents of how the stigma of care has affected their relationships. To work with people like this – resilient, principled, and determined – is truly inspiring.
When asked why they had gotten involved, a contributor put it simply – “to give children and young people the voice I never had”.
As co-chair of the Edges of Care, a working group looking at the beginnings and ends of Scotland’s care system – the point at which people enter, and the point at which they leave – I am determined that we deliver such a change, and that those who grow up in the care system receive all the love, compassion, and support all children need.
The young people presenting as homeless today deserve all the support they require, for however long it takes, to move from that tough reality towards a place of hope. Policy-making can often seem cold, top-down and bureaucratic – this needs to change. As one contributor put it, “everyone should be able to use the L word” – love.
Our stories will stick with us for the rest of our lives. But they don’t have to dictate it. The power and the freedom we have to shape our own stories depends upon the support we can call on surrounding us. The love and care of dedicated professionals and fellow citizens – alongside determination, ambition, and commitment from decision-makers top to bottom. It’s more than just economic common sense. This is a tragic state of affairs, and it’s a moral duty on us all that we get this right.
Ewan Aitken is CEO of Cyrenians Scotland