A new pilot project is working in partnership to prevent youth homelessness and strengthen family relationships
When Callum, 17, failed his college course, following years of difficulties, his parents deemed it the final straw, handed him a suitcase and told him to get out.
Not knowing what else to do, Callum called the Shelter helpline and was put through to the Safe & Sound project in Dundee. Within 24 hours a project worker had met with him to discuss his options and support him through a homeless interview at the local housing office. The project worker met with his mum and negotiated for Callum to remain at home while plans were being made for him to move out.
During this time, the project worker told Callum about mediation and how it can support families to come to decisions which are right for them. A mediator met with Callum and his mum, separately, to assess whether mediation was appropriate in this case, following which they both agreed to give it a try. Both worked very hard and through mediation it was established that Fiona did not want Callum to leave home but felt she had no other option but to ask him to go. However, it was clear they both wanted to work things out and further discussions helped identify what needed to happen for Callum to be allowed to remain at home.
He agreed to pull his weight more around the house and his relationship with his parents started to improve. With his project worker’s support, Callum sorted out the problems he was having at college and arranged to re-sit his failed modules. His dad started taking him to work so he could gain work experience, which led to him being offered a job by his dad’s boss. Now, five months on from that initial call for help, Callum is back living at home and working full time.
Callum’s story is an early success for Safe & Sound – a Lottery-funded pilot project that is working across Tayside and Fife to prevent youth homelessness and strengthen family relationships. The free and confidential service targets young people aged 14-24 who have run away, are thinking about it, or have been told to leave home – offering family mediation and 1:1 support.
Young people aged 16-24 represent 40 per cent of the homeless population in Tayside. Nearly half – 48 per cent – of those young people were living with their parents before becoming homeless. As in Callum’s case, relationship breakdown is the most common reason for homelessness among this age group, and a survey by Shelter Scotland found that 84 per cent of young people who are homeless ran away from home or care when they were under 16.
Having identified this key link between relationship breakdown and youth homelessness, Shelter Scotland and Relationships Scotland agreed it made sense for the two organisations to come together in a bid to prevent today’s runaways becoming tomorrow’s young homeless.
The project launched earlier this year and “hit the ground running”, explains project leader Richard McGilvray. Young people come to the service through various channels – some refer themselves by phoning the Shelter helpline or emailing the project. Others come in from parents contacting Relationships Scotland, while McGilvray says Skills Development Scotland has also been a surprisingly big referrer. Local youth organisations have been crucial, too in signposting young people to the project, and McGilvray says they are “really pleased” that, a few months in, some young people have begun to find them through word of mouth.
“Last month a young guy went into Scott Street [a youth services base in Perth] and asked how to get in touch with us because his mate had been working with us. And that is the ultimate.”
Some of the young people that get in touch will not require a great deal of support, McGilvray explains.
“For example, we had someone who came to us who was determined to move out. They weren’t getting on with mum and dad at all. We did some budgeting and money advice with them and it was quite clear, very quickly, that they couldn’t afford it. So the decision was that they would go back and get on a bit better. But that was it. It was a realisation of the real world and that worked. They did go back and get on better with mum and dad and they are saving and planning.”
Another contacted the service by email and was supported by a project worker online – a part of the service McGilvray says he is keen to develop as it could help widen access and provide another option for young people to access support in a way that best suits them.
However, at the other end of the spectrum are those who get in touch when they’ve just been handed a suitcase and told to get out.
“The first thing we’ll do there is make sure they are OK, get in touch with the local housing office and get them down there for a homeless assessment. We advocate on behalf of the young person during the interview – that is something we are finding we are doing a lot of – so we are able to make sure housing pull out all the stops.”
For some, returning home may not be an option and so practical support and independent living skills, such as help filling out forms and budgeting, is also offered to help reduce the risk of these tenancies failing.
“We worked with a guy who had two tenancies fail because he just couldn’t look after himself. So we are working with him and teaching him how to cook,” McGilvray explains.
“There is another girl who is blowing all her money on heating because she didn’t know – it is cold and she cranks up the heating, now she has got no money left. So that tenancy without our support would fail.”
The project has also identified a need for greater support for young ‘sofa surfers’.
“Not having a fixed address affects your benefits, getting into college – all those sort of things. You then have another barrier that other people don’t have,” explains McGilvray.
“You run out of friends that way. You go stay at your auntie’s house and then that relationship breaks down because you are sleeping on her couch and getting in her hair. So you go stay at your mate’s house and then there are parties all the time and you are not getting enough sleep. You fall out with your mate and then where do you go? It is a slippery slope.”
Such individuals will not necessarily be in the system and known to social workers and can therefore go unnoticed until a crisis point is reached – and so this ‘hidden homelessness’ is another area that the project is keen to focus on and ensure support is made available.
However, in addition to these more practical supports, the service also offers mediation to help the young person and their family understand and cope with what is going on, and try to work together to find a way forward.
“I have to have one-to-one meetings with everyone who wants to mediate, explains Amy Lorimer, a family mediator at Relationships Scotland.
“So I’ll have a one-to-one with the young person and they might need more than one one-to-one if they are anxious and need a bit of time to prepare. Quite often they want to mediate but they maybe don’t have the communication skills to mediate, so there is a bit of coaching and negotiating. And then I’ll meet whoever they want to mediate with – whether it is mum, dad, carer, or a sibling.”
Mediation is more effective if it is early intervention or bridge building, Lorimer explains, adding that she thinks more young people should be given the opportunity to learn those skills and how to communicate in a way that can resolve conflict as early as possible.
“Young people in particular get it. We all have the skills to mediate, we just maybe don’t always use those skills – especially with family members because they know how to push your buttons and you get stuck into cycles of how you communicate,” she says.
Mediation won’t succeed in every case, she cautions. However, by agreeing to try there is a tacit acknowledgement that people want to move forward.
“People only mediate if they want to. It is voluntary. So if they are coming together to mediate and they want to move forward, they are already half way there,” she says.
2012 has been a milestone year in Scotland as the deadline for meeting the historic commitment to abolish priority need and end unintentional homelessness finally arrived. While some areas still have work to do, McGilvray believes the Safe & Sound project, with its preventative focus, can play a role in maintaining gains that have been made. Initially funded for three years, the pilot project is still learning and adapting. However, McGilvray and Lorimer say it has already been attracting a great deal of interest from other local authority areas who are keen to replicate partnership working.
“I think there is a spotlight on us, but it is great,” laughs Lorimer.
“Relationships Scotland has services in every local authority area. Shelter is a national organisation so there are communications going on with other services about what is happening here and whether there is anything they can learn.”
“It seems so obvious now that it exists,” McGilvray says, adding, “I think that is the sign of a really good idea; when you feel like it has always been there.”