Young people facing homelessness: ‘We’ve got kids sleeping in the Phoenix Park’

Advocacy groups say the criteria for who receives aftercare support does not account for the often complicated journey of vulnerable young people through the care system

The number of young people in their late teens and 20s becoming homeless has risen to record levels in the last year, with increasing numbers sleeping rough in parks and cars, on friends’ couches or in homeless hostels — some of them exposed to risk of assault and exploitation.

Cole Waters (22) remembers the day he was taken from school in Galway and put into State care. He was 11.

When he was six, his mother died after a struggle with addiction problems. “That’s when things got hard for me. I was going to school with dirty clothes on me and having no lunches and missing more days than I was in,” Waters says.

The family had been known to social services before the death of his mother, with Waters saying he had a social worker for as long as he can remember.

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He was placed in a foster home aged 11, he says. He later moved to Wexford, where he lived with the mother of an older brother’s partner for several years.

More recently, as a young adult, he lived with a girlfriend and her parents, but he moved out of that home earlier this summer as the relationship had ended.

After spending several weeks on couches in friends’ homes, he says he was left with no option but to sleep in a homeless hostel in Wexford town.

Over the last 12 months, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who were homeless has steadily increased, up from less than 800 in June 2021 to 1,246 young people this June

Waters is one of more than 1,200 young people recorded as homeless in the State, a number that has risen sharply over the past 12 months.

Nearly one in five adults who were homeless in June were aged between 18 and 24, according to the latest Department of Housing statistics.

Over the last 12 months, the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who were homeless has steadily increased, up from less than 800 in June 2021 to 1,246 young people this June.

Tusla, the State child and family agency, offers a package of “aftercare” supports to young people leaving the care system from the age of 17 up to 21, or until 23 if the young person is in full-time education or training.

However, to be eligible for aftercare support a young person has to have been in care for at least a year between 13 and 18 years of age.

As Waters was not in a formal foster care placement during his later teenage years, he says he is not entitled to aftercare. “I’m someone who has been through the system, who has been picked and dropped all their life … People get aftercare who have their mammies and daddies, I don’t have any means of support,” he says.

Facing the private rental market alone as a 22-year-old, even with financial supports such as the Housing Assistance Payment which helps cover rent up to a limit, was “brutal”, he says.

Entering homeless accommodation, Waters had been “terrified” and says in the first few weeks he was physically assaulted by another man.

He is now training to be a barber as well as looking for other work but says he feels like his life has been hit by “setback after setback”, which all culminated in him becoming homeless.

“I feel like I’ve ran a thousand miles, all I’ve done in my life is run, run to a home I could never get to, I’m sick of it,” he says.

Ahmed (not his real name), a 22-year-old migrant from Somalia, was taken into State care when he was 17 and is halfway through a computer science degree in university.

But he deferred his third year in college, which meant his aftercare supports from Tusla also stopped. He had been living in a rented home with his older brother but had to leave the property at the end of May as their landlord decided to sell the home.

In a tight rental market without a family support system, he soon also had to resort to sleeping in a homeless shelter.

One night recently he did not make it to the hostel in Dublin city centre before an evening curfew and he had to sleep in his car.

The latest figures from Tusla show more than 3,100 young people are receiving aftercare supports

Working part-time in security, Ahmed says his life is now in “limbo” as he tries to plan to return to college. He believes the criteria for when care leavers are entitled to aftercare is too rigid. “These are people that have no people around them except the State,” he says.

The latest figures from Tusla show more than 3,100 young people are receiving aftercare supports.

About half of those remained living with their carers, such as foster parents, after turning 18. Advocacy groups say the criteria for who receives aftercare support does not account for the often complicated journey of vulnerable young people through the care system.

Marissa Ryan, chief executive of Epic (Empowering People in Care), says it is working with several young people who had left care and were now homeless.

“Investment in an enhanced aftercare service must also be matched by a real commitment at political level to address the impact of the housing crisis on care-leavers,” she says.

Children who had been in the care system had often lived “tumultuous and fractured lives” and as young adults needed stability, she says. The upcoming budget should prioritise providing more supports to help care leavers secure housing after exiting the system, says Ryan.

Neil Forsyth, head of youth services at homeless charity Focus Ireland, has worked in the sector for nearly two decades and says he has “never seen it so bad”.

In most cases young people end up homeless as a result of a breakdown in their family at home, he says. The Covid-19 pandemic may be partly to blame for a surge in youth homelessness, as many family support services “fell away” for long periods, he says.

Due to a shortage of homeless emergency accommodation specifically for young people, most are left sharing rooms in hostels with older adults, who may have been in the system several years and may have addiction issues or mental health difficulties.

In some cases, young people in homeless hostels will be targeted and groomed by criminal networks who try to get them involved in moving or selling drugs, according to Forsyth. “Young people are preyed upon, sexual exploitation, exploitation by drug gangs … I’ve seen cases in the last few years that made my hair stand on end,” he says.

I’ve been banging on the door for years now for Tusla to fund more mediators, for local authorities to fund more mediators

—  Neil Forsyth of Focus Ireland

The majority of young people Focus Ireland works with have come from disadvantaged backgrounds. In recent years Trinity College Dublin students and junior lawyers have relied on their homeless services.

Focus Ireland employs two mediators in Dublin — one funded by Tusla — who work to try to repair relationships to allow young people to move back into their family homes, which Forsyth describes as a “massively successful” but limited service. “I’d love to have an army of 20 or 30 mediators around the country. I’ve been banging on the door for years now for Tusla to fund more mediators, for local authorities to fund more mediators,” he says.

The fact some young people who had been in care were later ending up homeless was a “moral failing on the part of the State”, he says.

“You could eliminate homelessness among care leavers very quickly. We know exactly who they are, when they are leaving care, we know their exact numbers well in advance. If we could provide housing and plan a little bit in advance”, Forsyth says.

Of the roughly 500 young people who leave care each year, possibly about 80 would need to be offered housing by the State, he says.

The Department of Housing funds housing bodies under a Capital Assistance Scheme to buy homes on the market for specific vulnerable groups, such as care leavers. While Forsyth praises the scheme, he says the limits on how much can be spent have not kept pace with rising house prices.

Paul Kelly, who manages Focus Ireland youth services in Dublin, says when it comes to youth homelessness the system is broken. “We’ve got kids sleeping in the Phoenix Park,” he says.

There has been an increase in the numbers of younger people being sexually assaulted by others in homeless hostels, he says.

There was also a “disproportionate” number of LGBTQ+ people in homeless services, often young people who had been kicked out of their homes after coming out to their parents, he says.

The absence of any LGBTQ+ specific homeless accommodation meant young people sleeping in hostels had to effectively be pushed “back into the closet” for their own safety, he says.

The Government is to publish a new strategy in October on how it plans to address rising youth homelessness.

It is understood the plan will commit to increasing the amount of homeless accommodation specifically for young people, recognising that they may feel unsafe in hostels with other older adults.

The plan will set out actions to help cohorts particularly vulnerable to becoming homeless, such as care leavers, members of the LGBTQ+ community and young parents, say sources.

The forthcoming new youth homeless strategy would require a ‘whole-of-Government approach’ to tackle the problem

—  Tusla spokeswoman

It will also include extra supports to help struggling young people stay in rental tenancies to try to prevent the flow into homeless services. Officials are also considering the potential for several young people to “share” social housing, say sources.

A Tusla spokeswoman says the agency is well aware young people face “significant challenges” in the current housing crisis. The State agency provides some short-term accommodation for young people at risk of losing their housing or who are homeless, she says.

“Tusla aftercare teams in the areas are engaging with all accommodation providers such as student accommodation providers, holiday companies and Airbnb’s to access alternative accommodation for care leavers,” says the spokeswoman.

The agency had the discretion to delay withdrawing someone’s aftercare allowance for a short period, while they looked for a job after finishing education or training, says the spokeswoman.

The forthcoming new youth homeless strategy would require a “whole-of-Government approach” to tackle the problem, she adds.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times