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Homelessness among 18 - 34 year olds

Daniel Lewis - Communications, Policy and Insights Officer

27th February 2024

Most of us know that homelessness is on the rise in the UK and is at particularly concerning levels in London. You can see the increase with your own eyes by walking around towns and cities all over the country or by looking at official statistics. At Glass Door, we’re experiencing an increase in demand for both our night shelter and day-centre casework services compared to previous years. 

One group that is turning to us for support more than they used to, and struggling with particularly difficult situations, is guests aged 18-34. There are lots of fantastic, important efforts going on to raise awareness of youth homelessness, but these usually draw the cut-off at 21 or 25. This means that those aged between 25 and 34 are often left out of the discussion. 

What we are seeing on the frontline 

Over the last eight months, 28% of people who have used our casework service and 40% of those who have stayed at our night shelters have been under 35. Over the 12 months before that (June 2022 – May 2023), 22% of casework guests and 29% of shelter guests were in this age category, while the year before that (June 2021 – May 2022) the proportion of casework guests was 18%. 

One of the reasons why we have seen particularly high numbers of guests under 35 turning to us for support since August 2023 is because of Home Office policies relating to asylum seekers which were active until December. In order to try to reduce the number of people staying in asylum accommodation, efforts were made to fast-track a lot of asylum applications as well as reducing the amount of time that people had to move out once they received a result. In practice, this meant that large numbers of people who had been given refugee status had as little as a week to find alternative accommodation, leading to a significant increase in homelessness among refugees, many of whom were young. 

Our caseworkers report increasing difficulties when supporting people under 35 out of homelessness, as finding private rented accommodation for people in this category has become much more challenging. There are quite a few housing providers that we work with who used to accept under-35s but no longer do. 

For a while, some of the only accommodation that caseworkers could successfully refer people in this age category to were forms of supported accommodation, but now even these are becoming overwhelmed with the level of demand and many are not accepting new referrals. 

Social housing waiting lists stand at more than a million, and young people are generally far from the top of the queue.

Overall, the situation is bleak for the increasing numbers of under-35s finding themselves at risk of homelessness. 


The Shared Accommodation Rate (SAR) and how it works 

One significant reason why things have become so grim for under-35s is the way that Local Housing Allowance (LHA) is structured, specifically with the Shared Accommodation Rate (SAR). 

Since 2008, LHA rates have determined the maximum amount of housing benefit that private renters can get. At first, they were intended to be set at the level of the median private rent in an area – in other words, to be enough to afford to rent half of the properties on the market. In 2011, this was reduced so that it would only cover the bottom 30% of rents. LHA then under-went a process of being intermittently increased and frozen, most recently being frozen in 2020.

After a lot of campaigning, the government agreed to up-rate LHA to cover the bottom 30% of rents again from April 2024.

Within LHA, there are different rates based on what kind of accommodation is deemed to be appropriate for you. People 35 or older are entitled to the one-bedroom self-contained rate at a minimum, with entitlement to higher rates based on a number of factors such as whether they have children who live with them. 

Under-35s, on the other hand, are usually only entitled to the SAR, the lowest LHA amount. For under-35s to be entitled to a higher rate, they need an exemption because of (for example) having stayed in supported accommodation, being a parent, having a disability or being a survivor of domestic abuse or modern slavery. 

The SAR was first introduced in 1996, applying at that point to under-25s. The reasoning given for its introduction was “to ensure that Housing Benefit does not encourage young people to leave the parental home unnecessarily or to take on higher priced accommodation at the taxpayers’ expense than they could afford from their own earnings.” 

This was then extended to under-35s in 2011, with the aim of cutting down housing benefit costs and making sure that people receiving benefits were not put in an advantageous position over people of the same age who were not receiving benefits. The government argued that these changes would also help to reduce rents. 

At a similar time, changes were made in the transition from Housing Benefit to Universal Credit more closely attaching the rate to the person receiving it, rather than the type of housing they were renting. This created a much sharper divide between people of different ages, as it meant that someone aged 35 or over would usually get more money than someone under 35 even if they were renting the exact same type of housing. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, this change was meant to simplify the system. 

All of this, combined, has created a situation where low-income and/or insecurely-housed people under the age of 35 are particularly vulnerable and have been greatly affected by the housing crisis. 


The SAR’s effects  

In recent years, with rents increasing dramatically while housing benefits were frozen, even those on the higher rates of LHA have found it incredibly difficult to find accommodation that they can afford. For those on the SAR, this has become virtually impossible. 

Due to the changes made with Universal Credit mentioned above, providers of accommodation who cater for people receiving benefits are incentivised only to provide for those aged 35 or older (or who have an exemption). This is an important reason why it has become so difficult for charities and local authorities alike to find accommodation for most under-35s experiencing homelessness. 

Part of the reasoning around the SAR rests on the assumption that young people can depend on their families and community networks for support. But many under-35s do not have access to such support – their family and friends might not be able to offer them help or a place to stay, or they may not have a network at all.

It is these young people who are most likely to end up sleeping rough, or living in dangerous and potentially exploitative situations.

The SAR also has an impact for those who are able to stay with family (and so do not actually claim it). Because their lower rate of entitlement limits their ability to find anywhere that would be affordable if they were to move out, lots of under-35s are forced to live with family members in accommodation entirely unsuitable. Far too often, multiple adult children have no choice but to live with their parents in a home far too small to accommodate them all comfortably, in cramped conditions that are much more likely to lead to conflict and mental health difficulties. 


How can the situation be fixed? 

One step that would likely help improve the position of under-35s would be to reverse the change made with Universal Credit from the housing benefit rate being attached to the person to the property they are renting. This would mean that a 34-year-old and a 36-year-old living in the same property would receive the same amount of housing benefit (which they currently would not). Other steps that would make sense might be to reduce the age for the SAR back from 35 to 25, or even to scrap the lower rate entirely. 

Ultimately, however, under-35s’ increased likelihood of falling into homelessness is just another manifestation of the wider housing crisis.

To address the problem at its root, this crisis must be tackled, which would require long-term investment to expand the supply of social housing and bring down rents.