If the Conservatives win the general election on May 7th, David Cameron has vowed to cut housing benefit for unemployed 18-21 year-olds "within the first few days" of a victory. The question of what will happen to those young people who cannot find gainful employment and don't have a family home to return to hangs like a storm cloud.
Even Cameron is forced to admit that "some of these young people will genuinely have nowhere else to live," as for many, housing benefit is the only barrier between them and the street. For the vast majority of the 80,000 young people who are made homeless each year, moving home simply isn't an option. As many as four in ten young people become homeless because their parents will no longer put them up.
Youth homelessness is already a fast-growing problem – half of all homeless people first pushed onto the streets when they are under 21. Like many, Stefan, 21, is reliant on housing benefit to survive. And, like many, he was forced out of his home because of domestic violence. "I had to leave because my younger brother was really violent. I'm talking broomsticks round my head, hammers in my back, deodorant in my eyes, coming at me with knifes," he says. "It was brought on by his schizophrenia, ADHD and other things."
In the end, things got too much and Stefan was forced to leave. He was homeless in London for three years. "I was here, there and everywhere. Sometimes on the streets. Other times I'd stay with friends but that would never last long," he tells me. "I'd stay for a couple months. I'd be working and I'd think everything was sweet but then suddenly I'd get kicked out and I'd lose everything all over again."
Last summer, Stefan eventually sought help from New Horizon, a charity that specialises in youth homelessness. He was then housed in a YMCA hostel, where he still lives. For much of this time he has been working at a FedEx warehouse, but hasn't been able to work recently because of a wrist injury. Having only just turned 21, he'll be first in the firing line of plans to axe housing benefit. Living in a hostel and unable to return home, Stefan isn't just helped by housing benefit – it's a lifeline. Without it, he would be back on the streets.
When I ask him what he thinks of Cameron's plans, he turns pale. "I want to go back to work now that my wrist is healing, but how's that possible without housing benefit to get me back on my feet? I guess I'd have to try to get by and pay it by any means necessary. I don't know how, though. I need that money".
Like Stefan, Natasha, 19, is also dependent on housing benefit. She was forced to leave her home in Sunderland, but for different reasons. "I had to move out of my family home because my drug addiction was getting too much. If I wasn't on stuff, I was angry," she says. "It just wasn't something I wanted my family to see anymore."
Natasha decided to leave home and spent several weeks crashing on friends' sofas. Fortunately, this didn't last long. "In early October, I came to Centrepoint, declared myself homeless and asked for help. Within a week, I had all these appointments with different people – councillors, housing people. I don't think I could've asked for better support."
Natasha was immediately referred to a hostel in Sunderland where she lived with other young people in need of emergency accommodation. But since then she has moved into independent housing, where she has now lived for three months. Volunteering as a youth educator for Centrepoint, Natasha spends her time travelling to comprehensive schools in the North West educating young people about homelessness. "I'm able to walk away from these schools knowing kids are less likely to judge homeless people," she says.
In the future, Natasha hopes to get a full-time, paid job with Centrepoint. "Things are definitely looking up. My relationship with my parents has got much better and I hope that if I continue to keep the rent up to scratch, I can get my own social housing."
But this won't be likely if the Tories win. When I ask her what will happen if they do, she looks anxious. "I'd obviously become street homeless. I'd have no way of surviving whatsoever," she says. "We appreciate what we've got, but Cameron wants to take that away from us. Just when we're getting ourselves back on our feet, he's going to push us back down again."
While it might be tempting to dismiss Stefan and Natasha's experiences as isolated horror stories, they are, in fact, representative of many young people claiming housing benefits. What's more, they disprove Cameron's illusion that we can all move back in with our families at the drop of a hat.
While the Conservatives might argue that families should take greater financial responsibility for young people, for many moving home just isn't an option. Whether their parents have relocated or had to downsize due to the bedroom tax, divorce or liquidation, it is not a reliable default. But scrapping housing benefit for under-21s conveniently ignores all of this. Instead, it either forces people back into the dysfunctional homes they left for a reason, or pushes them onto the streets.
With a growing shortage of suitable accommodation for young people on benefits, finding a mould-infested shoe-box room to rent has become seriously difficult. Research by Crisis found that less than 2 percent of properties are available and affordable for single young people on housing benefit in the private rented sector, despite deluded ministers parroting that the cheapest third of properties should be available. On top of this, increasing numbers of landlords are outright refusing to take tenants on benefits.
With youth unemployment and rents rising in tandem, being young in Britain, for many, is a far cry from a period of hedonistic, responsibility-free living where you discover who you are, what you like, who you like, and what the fuck you want to do with your life. As living standards have plummeted, youth unemployment has remained stubbornly high in post-crash Britain. 4 in 10 unemployed people are under the age of 25.
In due course, housing benefits serve as a lifeline – not a lifestyle – for those who can't find a job. By taking away this safety net, we will be throwing people into crisis during some of the most emotionally overwhelming years of their lives.
Moreover, it seems strange that, while I was allowed to borrow 10 grand from the government for my en-suite room at university, other young people might not be able to get enough housing benefit to keep them off the streets. While the more privileged are able to stride serenely into adulthood, others are left to doggy paddle. Or sink.
If housing benefit is axed, LGBT youth will be disproportionately affected, too. Roughly a quarter of the young homeless population in urban areas identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. For many, coming out literally means being pushed out the front door. Is a home that rejects a young person because of their sexuality a safe one to try and return to? Is it one of the "happy families" that Cameron wants to play a greater role in the welfare state?
Up until the end of January, the Conservatives had pledged to axe housing benefits for 18-25 year-olds. However at the last minute, it was dropped it to 18-21. It is still unclear whether this was due to Lib Dem opposition or a growing backlash amongst the public. Nevertheless, now that the age bracket has been reduced, the government say they will only be saving £120 million. This figure includes all of the 23,541 young people currently on housing benefit and job seekers allowance – including those with dependant children and those who have just left care. While the two latter groups have been tallied into this figure, the government has yet to explain how they'll be included in the cuts.
It's important to remember that cutting housing benefit will drastically add to the benefits bill in the long run, as homelessness costs the government an estimated total of £1 billion a year. So, even if you do follow George Osborne's rhetoric and don't care about the human cost of cutting housing benefits, it still makes no economic sense whatsoever.
The fact that they'll only be saving such a negligible sum of money suggests that this is an ideological move, and reeks of a desperate plea to bolster callous stereotypes of work-shy youths, dicking about watching Jeremy Kyle and ripping off our precious state. Whatever it is, it's clear that in massaging the British public's prejudices, the Conservative party are irreversibly ripping people's lives apart. That is the human consequence.
There might be three million young people who haven't yet decided who to vote, but it's them who the burden of welfare cuts will hit. How we make young people engage with and potentially gain autonomy over the situation is another article entirely. What is clear, though, is the outcome if this new housing benefit cut comes in. Youth homelessness will rise, again, forcing young people onto the streets, where their odds of finding employment fall by the day.
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