Once I woke up cuffed to a hospital bed. I had been arrested and didn’t have a clue why.Fiona
This year’s Sceptical Scot Christmas story is a message of both hardship and hope.
The hardship is often distressingly visible. Homeless young people sleeping rough on our city streets. There is also a hidden population of vulnerable youngsters, sleeping on sofas, in unsafe relationships or often unsuitable temporary accommodation. Among the most vulnerable are young people leaving care. Recent Scottish Government statistics suggest that at least 21% of care leavers become homeless within five years of leaving care.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Housing First programme works [see Sarah Johnson’s analysis Agenda: End rough sleeping crisis] because it offers rapid access to housing with the essential unconditional support.
And that’s where hope lies. As Kate Polson, chief executive of the Edinburgh-based charity Rock Trust, reports, the Housing First for Youth programme is surpassing expectations of young people who had doubted it would work, “because of their experience of failing systems and falling through the net.”
One of those young people is Fiona whose life has taken a new turn.
As a teenager Fiona was one of Scotland’s most missing young people, running away from home repeatedly. Last year she tried to jump from the edge of a car park roof.
Fiona struggled with an alcoholic parent and often drank to numb the problems at home. Growing up in care, she was moved to five different residential units and would often sleep rough or on whatever sofa she could find for the night.
She started suffering depression, anxiety and panic attacks. Eventually she was excluded from school and served with a warning from the Police after an incident involving anti-social behaviour. In 2017 after a suicide attempt she was put on supervision order for her safety and spent three months in a secure unit.
I would have ended up dead. I was running away all the time. It was scary at night when it got late and I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t go back to that now. I remember once I woke up cuffed to a hospital bed. I had been arrested and didn’t have a clue why.
Round the clock support
Fiona was referred to the Rock Trust’s Housing First for Youth scheme in West Lothian in 2017. As a young person with care experience and mental health issues, she was a priority for this kind of support, which sees young people move in to permanent homes, where they are provided with round the clock personalised support by a dedicated Rock Trust support worker, with the aim of ensuring they never become homeless again.
Fiona moved in to her own tenancy, provided by Almond Housing Association, at the end of 2017. The first thing her support worker did with her was to help her pick out the furniture she wanted for her new home, helping her to feel comfortable and empowered that this space was hers, that no one was going to take it away.
Young people growing up in care have often had chaotic, unstable and sometimes traumatic experiences as a child. This was certainly the case for Fiona. Housing First for Youth offers the stability and empathy she needed to move forward with her life.
As well as her new home, Fiona now has daily support, both practical and emotional, from her support worker, and is making plans to go to college. She can still struggle with her family relationships and mental health, but she finally feels comfortable asking for help.
I was pushing people away for years and didn’t get on with my social workers. I didn’t trust them. I would just shut them down. Now life is so different. I feel this is my home. And I know I have help no matter what.
A change in thinking
Young people affected by homelessness should not have to experience shelters and institutions.Kate Polson
Outlining an ambitious vision to end youth homelessness in Scotland, Kate Polson writes:
Across each local authority in Scotland, prevention is the new focus in efforts to reduce youth homelessness. The sector’s focus is no longer on the creation of temporary housing solutions but on how we can get people into stable, long-term housing at the earliest possible stage.
Young people affected by homelessness should not have to experience shelters and institutions. They should have the same opportunities and experiences as their safely homed peers. We are focusing on small-scale shared housing of the kind most of us experience in our youth, family-like environments that combat isolation and mainstream tenancies. We are also ensuring young people get the additional support they need to make a success of independent living.
Preventing youth homelessness
The national Housing First Pathfinder Programme launched in 2018 with a Scotland-wide strategy for rapid rehousing. Building on that success, Rock Trust’s Housing First for Youth is now in its second year and recognised as a leading programme.
Young people being housed and supported within the programme doubted that it would work because of their experience of failing systems and falling through the net. But we have already surpassed their expectations and ensured that they don’t return to homelessness. Now, many organisations in Scotland and leaders across Europe are looking to us to learn how they can provide similar services and create similar strategies.
In 2018, our national coalition to end youth homelessness, A Way Home: Scotland, gathered momentum, bringing together organisations and individuals to be champions in our Scotland-wide efforts to make youth homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.
- A Way Home: Scotland coalition launched the Youth Homelessness Prevention Pathway in November as part of the Scottish Government’s Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group (HARSAG). The programme starts with evidence-based steps to prevent care leavers becoming homeless.
Fiona’s story and Kate Polson’s message were first published in this year’s Rock Trust annual report.
Rock Trust offers housing support across Edinburgh and the Lothians. For more information visit rocktrust.org
Further reading: Home thoughts, a Rock Trust poetry project with young people.