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Support Networks For Young Homeless People

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The support network of leaving care and statutory homeless young people 16 and 17 years old living in homeless hostels


1. Introduction
2. “Legal” literature
2.1. Youth homelessness in England
2.2. Housing provision for 16/17 years old homeless young people
2.3. Leaving care
3. “Psychological” literature
3.1. Social networks
4. Methodology
4.1. Methodology
4.2. Construction of the interview
4.3. Procedure
4.4. The pilot study
4.5. Sample
4.6. Analysis of the interviews: categorisation of contents
5. Research findings and discussion
6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Adolescence is a period where important changes occur in the relationship between young people and their parents (Paikoff & Brooks-Gunn, 1991). It seems that as young people try to become more independent the amount of conflict with parents increases (Paikoff & Brooks-Gunn, 1991; Laursen et al., 1998). Conflict levels seem to be higher in middle adolescence and decrease in late adolescence (Paikoff & Brooks-Gunn, 1991; Laursen et al., 1998). However, in some cases the conflict can be so intense that adolescents are evicted from the parental home or leave by their own initiative to avoid or escape the conflict situations and as a result they may become homeless (CHAR, 1996; Ploeg & Scholte, 1997; Smith, 1998; Fitzpatrick, 2000). Some leave their parental homes while they are under the age of 18 years old which means that legally they are still children. Therefore, these adolescents can be accommodated by the Children Services, under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, if considered to be children “in need” according to section 17 of the same act or by the Housing Department as statutory homeless under the Homelessness Act 2002 after their inclusion in the priority list introduced by the The Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002.

Research on the topic of homeless young people found that among this group is possible to find a large number of adolescents that had been looked after by the Local Authorities. This adolescents suffered, in some cases, separations of years and several restrictions in the contact with their natural family. Yet, the Local Authorities still have parental duties regarding them and in most cases they had been accommodated in foster families. This can provide young people leaving care with additional sources of support.

It is often stated in literature that the social networks of homeless young people are poor and that they lack quality supportive links. In a study by Pleace et al. (2008) that looked at families and 16 and 17 years old accepted as homeless, the findings show that the instrumental (practical help in a crisis situation) and emotional (having someone to talk to) support received by 16 and 17 years old is mainly given by friends and family but overall this group is significantly less supported then the national average. Although this study gives an idea of the support networks of these group it is quantitative research and it does not provide much more information on the composition and quality of the support networks. Additionally, more than half of the participants were already 18 years old at the time the interview was conducted. Another study by Lemos and Durkacz (2002) that included 26 vulnerable people with ages between 17 and 53 years old with a history of homelessness showed that homeless people maintain supportive contacts with family although they differ substantially in regularity. Furthermore, they found that the relationship homeless people have with peers are mainly with other people they meet in homeless settings and although there are long term friendships this pattern is not the most common. This study provides qualitative information on the social network of homeless people, however there was only one respondent of 17 years old, all the other participants were older. Moreover it approached individuals with a history of homelessness with means that some of the participants were already in permanent accommodation and others had been homeless for several years.

Homeless hostels provide accommodation for statutory homeless and leaving care with 16 and 17 years old. The adolescents in this last group suffered, in some cases, separations of years and several restrictions in the contact with their natural family. Yet, the Local Authorities still have parental duties regarding them and in most cases they had been accommodated in foster families. This can provide young people leaving care with additional sources of support. In this study the two groups will be compared to determine the extent of support received and the existing differences.

The findings of this study can be used to enrich the knowledge about this vulnerable group and provide relevant information to professionals working with them in order to create methods to better support this group.

Research suggests that homeless young people have less support than their peers in the general population
There are a number of studies in the United Kingdom on the topic of youth homelessness. However, not much specific about the support networks and especially not much about the support network of homeless young people aged 16 and 17 years old. Additionally, the existent research focuses on homeless young people as a group and does not take into account the different groups of single homeless young people as statutory homeless and care leavers.

This study aims to examine the social networks of homeless 16 and 17 years old living in homeless hostels in London. It intends to find out the extent to which homeless young people have contact with family and friends and the quality of the support received from both sources. It also aims to find whether there are differences between the social networks of statutory homeless and leaving care young people aged 16 and 17.

The present paper is divided in five parts. The first part intends to contextualise the study by giving the different meanings of homelessness, presenting a brief history of homeless youth in England emphasising the causes that triggered that phenomenon to emerge. Additionally, the legal definition of homeless person will be given and the housing policies will be looked at. Finally, it will be presented an explanation of the term leaving care, the relevant legislation, the factors that can trigger homelessness and the factors that can affect the support network of this group. In the second part, a definition of social network and support network will be provided paying attention to the constructs that can be used to assess the existence and the quality of support networks, the importance of support networks will be highlighted and a studies of homeless support networks will be described and analysed. In the third part the design of the research and the sample will be described, the analysis of the interviews will be made and categorisation of the contents presented. In fourth part the results will be analysed and discussed related to the categories created. Finally, a conclusion will be drawn.

2. Legal literature

2.1. Youth homelessness in England

There is no consensual definition of homelessness, as the same word has different meanings for the government, the voluntary agencies that work with this group of people, the common citizen and the media (Pleace and Quilgars, 1999). For the general public the word homeless is likely to bring to mind images of someone without shelter, and in that sense homeless people are seen as those who sleep on the streets. However, a homeless person can also be a person that does not have a house and lives in emergency accommodation, is institutionalised, lives in temporary accommodation, such as bed and breakfasts hostels, refuges or lives with friends or relatives for a period of time. The term homeless can also be applicable to people that live in bad housing conditions, such as overcrowded houses, substandard houses or in environments that present a threat to the safety and wellbeing of the individual. Finally, the broader definition of homeless also includes people that do not have sufficient economic resources to buy or rent their own house and as a consequence have to share accommodation on a long-term basis (Thornton, 1990 and Fitzpatrick et al. 2000).

There is a legal definition of homelessness that will be given in the next section. However, for the purpose of this study young homeless people are those who are living in temporary accommodation and specifically homeless hostels.
The phenomenon of homelessness among young people in Britain rose significantly during the 1980’s and 1990’s (Quilgars et al., 2008) due to a conjunction of economic, social and political factors (Thornton, 1990).

In the 1970’s, a crisis in the oil industry led to a world economic recession that resulted in the closure of some companies and in a reduction in the recruitment or the redundancy of workers in others. This situation affected the manufacturing industries and in the United Kingdom it had a major impact on industries such as mining and ship-building. There was consequently a reduction in the number of jobs available or a complete lack of jobs in that industry, affecting particularly some areas of the country. The unemployment rate increased. Young school leavers, with almost no qualifications and with little or no work experience, that previously were able to get unskilled jobs were particularly affected. The increase in the rate of unemployment in some parts of the country made young people move to larger cities where they were more likely to find work in the service industry that had started to expand during the 1980’s (Hutson and Liddiard, 1997). However, the vast number of people that moved to big cities hoping to find a job, in conjunction with other demographic and social factors, aggravated the shortage of affordable houses . Consequently, in cities like London during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s it was possible to find a large number of young people sleeping in the streets (Smith, 1999). Some young people could not get a job and for those who managed to find work, the significant difference between their wages and those of adults made it harder for this group to compete in the housing market (Thornton, 1990).

The growth of youth unemployment resulted in an increase in the number of benefit claims made by this group, which had a significant impact on the social security budget (Hutson and Liddiard, 1997). To reduce the benefits bill, the government introduced changes in the Social Security Benefits (Hutson and Liddiard, 1997). Until the late 1980’s unemployed young people were entitled to Supplementary Benefit that paid board and lodging allowances which permitted them to live in bed and breakfasts . However, by the end of that decade with the Social Security Act 1988 (Fitzpatrick, 2000) those benefits were discontinued and replaced by Income Support and Housing Benefit . The new benefit system introduced different payment rates according to the age of the applicant and young people aged 16 to 25 years old were entitled to the smallest amounts . When this system was introduced it was thought that it would discourage young people from leaving their parents’ home before they had sufficient economical resources to support themselves . Nevertheless, the effect, at least in the years following its implementation, was the opposite and there was an increase in the number of young people, that without having the opportunity to return home, ended up sleeping on the streets or accumulating huge debts (Thornton, 1990). Young people aged 16 and 17 were the most affected by the change in the benefit system as they could only claim Income Support in exceptional circumstances (Fitzpatrick, 2000). This included couples with children, single mothers, pregnant women, young people with mental or physical health problems or young people that attended full-time education (not higher education) and were estranged from their parents (Income support: information for new costumers, 2000).

In 1986, the government extended the existing Youth Training Schemes, created in 1983, from one to two years in order to solve the problem of the high rate of unemployment among compulsory school leavers aged 16 and 17 and the forthcoming exclusion from the social security benefit system . This programme intended to provide young people with the adequate skills to successfully apply for a job and during the training period all trainees were entitled to a small weekly allowance . However, this measure was not successful as on the one hand, the government could not guarantee a sufficient number of work places for all 16 and 17 year olds (Fitzpatrick, 2000) and on the other hand, for many young people the chances of finding a job after finishing the training did not increase significantly (Hutson and Liddiard,1997).

In addition to all of this, a change in demographic and social factors such as the increasing rate of divorces and separations, the increased longevity of life and the rise in the average age of people when they first got married resulted in more single households . With more people in need of housing, the number of affordable houses available in the market decreased significantly making it more difficult for young people to become independent from their parents and be able to live in a house of their own .
While in the late 1980’s the main reason for homelessness among young people seemed to be the result of unemployment, that had made adolescents move from their home towns to bigger cities in order to find a job, in the early 1990’s the majority of homeless young people had left their parental home due to family conflict (Smith, 1998 and Smith, 1999). This is consistent with the findings from research conducted by Centrepoint. This organisation found that in 1987 half of the young people who had participated in the study had left the family home to find work or to live independently and that in 1996 almost all the young people (86 percent) had been forced to leave the parental home due to family conflict (Centrepoint, 1996 cited by CHAR). More recently, it was also found that 65 percent of the young people aged 16 and 17 accepted as statutory homeless participating in one survey had left the family home due to relationship breakdown, which confirms that currently this is still the main reason for adolescents to leave the family home (Pleace et al.,2008).

The change in circumstances that resulted in young people leaving the family home can be attributed to a combination of factors. Firstly, the change in family structures linked to the breakdown of nuclear families and the posterior family reconstitution (CHAR, 1996) can act as a trigger due to conflict in the relationship between the young person and the parent or step-parent (Thornton, 1990). It can also be the case that the remarriage of parents results in overcrowded households which could put an enormous pressure on the older children to leave the house (Thornton, 1990). Secondly, the fact that parents lose child benefit and have reductions in income support and housing benefit when the child reaches a certain age (16 years old ) can lead to tensions resulting from the economic dependency (CHAR, 1996). Finally, poverty, poor housing conditions and overcrowded houses can cause stress and anxiety that might also lead to conflict (CHAR, 1996).

After leaving the family home, there were not many options available for young people other than sleeping on the streets, staying with friends or family or approaching the housing departments and registering oneself as homeless. Accessing the private rented sector was complicated for young people as the rents were high, there was normally need for an initial deposit and for those not yet 18 years old it is not possible to hold a legal tenancy. For the under 18’s council housing could still be a solution, however, the massive selling of council houses during the 1980’s caused a reduction in the number of social houses available . Furthermore, this group was not considered in priority need for accommodation until 2002 (this will be explained in the next section).
The number of people sleeping rough in Central London increased so much during the late 1980’s that the government was forced to implement measures to respond to the problem of street homelessness (Fitzpatrick et al., 2005 and Smith, 1999). Therefore, in 1990 the Rough Sleepers’ Initiative was created with the aim of tackling street homelessness by providing outreach services, hostels and winter shelters (Smith, 1999). This initiative showed positive outcomes as it reduced largely, mainly in the first years of intervention, the number of rough sleepers in the centre of the capital (Fitzpatrick et al., 2005). Consequently, in 1996 this programme was extended to the rest of the country (Fitzpatrick et al., 2005).

The number of 16 and 17 year olds accepted as statutory homeless increased continuously from 1997/1998 (3,150) to 2003/2004 (11,050), having this peak probably resulted from changes in the homeless policies introduced in 2002. However, since then, the number of young people accepted as statutory homeless has been decreasing and in 2006/2007 reached 6,384 (Quilgars et al., 2008).

Due to the current economic recession, the rate of unemployment has increased in the last few months . Once again the most affected are young school leavers aged 16 and 17. According to government statistics in March/May 2009 the percentage of unemployment among 16 and 17 year olds reached 30.5 percent . Difficulty in finding work and not yet being entitled to claim benefits makes young people economically dependent on their parents, a fact that can cause tensions in the family which in turn can be a trigger for homelessness (CHAR, 1996). Nevertheless, the number of statutory homeless young people 16 and 17 year olds and 18 to 20 year olds care leavers accepted as statutory homeless has been decreasing since 2003 and in 2008 was 3,870 . These numbers, however, do not include young people that did not approach the Local Authority and might be sleeping rough or staying with family members or friends.

2.2. Housing provision for 16/17 years old homeless young people

The first law in the United Kingdom to define homelessness in legal terms (Pleace et al., 1997) and to recognise it as a housing problem was the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977 (Lowe, 1997). This Act was also the first piece of legislation to place a duty on Local Authorities to re-house on a permanent basis and as a matter of priority households considered homeless; as long as they provided proof that they could not arrange accommodation by their own means (Pleace, 1997; Lowe, 1997 and Pleace, 2008).
The definition of homeless person used in that act remained basically in the same terms within the Housing Act 1985. This last piece of legislation introduced the notion of priority need for accommodation and the groups that would fit into those criteria. Young people would only be considered in priority need under this act if they were considered to be at risk of sexual or financial exploitation (Thorton, 1990).

In the United Kingdom the definition of homeless person currently in use is given by the Housing Act 1996, and although with some minor changes stays fundamentally the same as in the previous acts (Pleace, 1997). Thus, the definition of statutory homeless stated in section 175 of that act refers to a person that has no accommodation in the United Kingdom or elsewhere or a person for whom it is unsafe to enter their accommodation or someone that is at risk of becoming homeless within 28 days. Additionally, a person can apply as homeless if there is a risk of domestic violence or another type of violence for them or a member of their family (Housing Act 1996, s177). The act also lists in section 189 the groups of people that are considered to be in priority need of accommodation. These groups include pregnant women, families with children, people that are vulnerable due to old age, people that have a mental or physical illness and people that are homeless as a result of flooding, fire or other emergency disaster.

This act introduced an inquiry stage, where a person applying as homeless had to show that he/she was eligible for assistance by the Local Authority Housing Department (Housing Act 1996, s184). However, one of the major changes introduced by this act, under section 193, was the reduction of the duty of Local Authorities to secure accommodation for homeless households (Cloke et al., 2000). The Local Authorities under this act had the duty to provide homeless people with the minimum of two years in temporary accommodation with the possibility of revising this provision after that period (Housing Act 1996, s193). In the meantime the details of the homeless households would be entered into the housing register and they would be put on a waiting list together with all other people that had applied for Council or Housing Association housing (Lowe, 1997). The second important measure introduced, under section 197, allowed Local Authorities to cease their duty to homeless households if another suitable accommodation was available in the area. In this case the Local Authority was only required to provide advice and assistance in order for the person to gain access to that accommodation (Cloke, 2000).

As it was shown, the housing policies referred to until now, do not seem to address in any way the specific housing problem of homeless young people. Young people can be considered statutory homeless if victims of domestic violence or if classified as vulnerable people but the inclusion in this last category was at the discretion of each Housing Department.

A piece of legislation that had an impact in the housing issues of homeless young people was the Children Act 1989. This act, under section 20, places a duty on Local Authorities to provide accommodation for children in their area that are in “need”, as defined by section 17, and require accommodation. A child is defined as “in need” if there is no person with parental responsibility, the child had been lost or abandoned or the caregiver had been prevented temporary or permanently to provide the child with suitable accommodation or care.

From 2002 the governmental strategy regarding homelessness seems to have changed from a solving approach aimed at reducing the number of rough sleepers to a more preventive approach (Pawson, 2007). The specific problems of homeless young people or those adolescents at risk of becoming homeless seemed also to have taken into consideration. With the introduction of the Homeless Act 2002 the duty of Local Authorities to prevent homelessness was reinforced. Local Authorities were required to create homelessness strategies aimed at the prevention of homelessness and at supporting people that are or may become homeless (Homeless Act 2002 s1, s2 and s3). In order to accomplish that, several measures were recommended, for example the creation of family mediation services directed at young people at risk of being evicted by their family or friends (Pawson, 2007). These services intended to prevent this eviction by helping the adolescents and family or friends to resolve the existent conflict (Pawson, 2007).

The Homelessness Act 2002 was also important as it abolished, under section 6, the minimum period for which a Local Authority is subject to the main homelessness duty, previously introduced by the Housing Act 1996. The result was to place again the duty on Local Authorities to secure accommodation until the household is placed or acquires permanent accommodation. Additionally, section 9 of this act abolished section 197 of the Housing Act 1996 by which the Local Authority would cease their duty to homeless people when other suitable accommodation was available in their area.

Another measure introduced in the same year was the Statutory Instrument 2002 No. 2051 The Homelessness (Priority Need for Accommodation) (England) Order 2002. This statutory instrument, under section 3, extends the category of priority need to include a young person aged 16 and 17 “who is not a relevant child for the purposes of section 23A of the Children Act 1989” and is not a “person to whom a local authority owe a duty to provide accommodation under section 20” of the same Act. Additionally, this instrument extended the priority for care leavers aged 18 to 21 or older if they are considered vulnerable as a result of having been looked after children.

The Supporting People programme introduced in 2003 had also an impact on homeless young people by recognising and investing in the quality of the housing support services available (Pawson, 2007).

When accepted as homeless by the Local Authorities Housing Departments young people are usually placed in temporary accommodation. There are different types of accommodation where young people are placed, though they can be classified in five broad groups. The first group comprises bed and breakfast hotels. This type of accommodation usually presents poor standards (Fitzpatrick, 2000), some lack cooking facilities, there are also concerns regarding safety and there are no qualified professionals on site that could support those youngsters (Quilgars, 2008). All these concerns seemed to have been taken into account by the government when on the 14th November 2006 Ruth Kelly announced in a speech that “we are making a commitment today that by 2010, 16 and 17 year olds will not be placed in bed and breakfast hotels unless it is an emergency”. Since then the number of young homeless people placed in that type of accommodation has decreased, from 550 at the end of December 2007 (CLG, 2008) to 340 (of those 120 had been in this type of accommodation for more than 6 weeks) (CLG, 2009). The second group includes hostels that provide specialised schemes for young people, where in conjunction with a safe environment, specialised support is provided (Quilgars, 2008). The level and type of support offered to residents differs (Quilgars, 2008), although generally includes the development of independent living skills, access to education or training and emotional support. The third type of accommodation is called Foyers and it is a type of hostel that supports young people with access to education, training and employment. The fourth type comprises shared houses, where a young person shares a house with others and has floating support adequate to his/her needs (Fitzpatrick, 2000). Finally, in recent years, supported lodging schemes have been expanding (Quilgars, 2008). In this type of provision the young person stays within a family house and is assisted to develop independent living skills. The adolescent has hi/her own bedroom and shares communal areas with the family .

2.3. Leaving care

Care leavers are young people 16 years old or older that have been in the care of a Local Authority. These children had been placed under the care of a Local Authority for different reasons. In the year ending 31st March 2008 of the 23,000 children who started to be looked after, 62 percent entered care due to abuse or neglect (DCSF, 2008). The amount of time children spend in care varies and although the current average is less than one year, 2.6 percent are still in care for 5 years or more and 7.2 percent between 2 and 5 years (DCSF, 2008). During this period, some of the children have little contact with their birth families . Additionally, the move into care can result in a change of neighbourhood and school (Stein, 2005) which can have a negative impact on the child’s relationship with peers. Moreover, there is still a significant percentage of children that experience several moves between placements (11.4% of looked after children moved three or more times during the year ending in March 2008) (DCSF, 2008) which can cause instability to children due to the change of “carers, friends, neighbourhoods, schools on several occasions” (Stein, 2005 p.7). Most of the children that are taken into care are placed with foster carers (DCSF, 2008) and when placements succeed foster carers can be an additional source of support to the young person even when they had ceased being looked after (Harper, 2006).

Research carried out in 1990’s found that it was common for these children to leave the care of Local Authorities between the ages of 16 and 18 years old and that the usual reason for that was the breakdown of placements or because it was thought by their carers that it was in the best interest of the adolescent to move when he/she had reached the age of 16 or 17 (Stein, 1997). However, findings from recent research verified that the proportion of young people that leave care at an early age is still high. Governmental statistics show that in the year ending 31st march 2008, of the 8,300 children aged 16 or over that ceased being looked after by Local Authorities, 24 percent were 16 years old and 15 percent were 17 years . Wheal and Matthews (2007) also found high percentages of young people that leave care at an early age. These authors passed a questionnaire to 91 care leavers and found that in 2006, 42.9 percent of 16 year olds and 29.7 percent of 17 year olds had left their placement and that in 74.5 percent of the cases the move had been part of their pathway plan. They also found that 41.7 percent had left care to go to semi-independent accommodation and that 18.7 percent went to live with parents or other family members . These last set of results are very similar to those obtained by Stein et al. (2007) through the examination of social services records and interviews with professionals that were conducted during part of 2003 and 2004. These authors verified that 39.2 percent of young people aged 16 or older that had left care went directly into independent living accommodation and that 18.2 percent returned home.

While young people in the general population are delaying the time that they leave the family home this research suggests that a large proportion of children in care leave residential or foster care at a very young age. Plus, it seems that a high number of young people had started to live independently before their 18th birthday.

Probably, the early age these children leave care (the maximum at 18th years old which is much earlier than the rest of the population that leave home on average at 24 ) and/or the lack of preparation to live independently and/or the lack of social support (as children that spent a longer time in care have weaker links with their birth family and friends ) increases the risk of becoming homeless, a fact that is corroborated by the large proportion of care leavers among the youth homeless population (Stein, 1997). More recently Barn et al. (2005) found that 36 percent of the 261 care leavers aged 16 to 21 that participated in their study had experienced homelessness for periods that ranged from weeks to more than one year.

The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 imposed on Local Authorities a duty to improve the support given to care leavers. The support offered includes accommodation and financial assistance for 16 and 17 years old and the appointment of a personal adviser, the development of a pathway plan and general assistance to young people and young adults aged 16 up to 21 or 24 (DH, 2000). Additionally, this act placed on Local Authorities a duty to support care leavers up to 21 years old or 24 years if in full-time further or higher education. Under these circumstances the Local Authority has to provide vacation accommodation if needed (The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, s24B(5)). The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 extended the support to young people aged 21 up to 25 that had been previously in care and that wish to return to education or training. The support includes the appointment of a personal adviser, the development of a pathways plan (Children and Young Persons Act 2008, s22). This act also places a duty in the Local Authority to pay a grant to care leavers that pursue higher education (Children and Young Persons Act 2008, s21).

Given that young people that were looked after might have less support from family and friends than young people in the general population, it is considered that supported accommodation is a beneficial option . Therefore, many young people leaving care will be placed in similar settings to statutory homeless young people (these types of accommodation were described in the section above). Although it is also acknowledged that in some cases it would be beneficial if the placement in foster families could be extended even after their 18th birthday as the support that young people receive is advantageous for their development and transition to adulthood . For that reason, in 2008 the government launched a 3 year pilot programme in ten Local Authorities entitled “The staying put: 18 + family placement”. This programme enables young people to stay with their former foster carers until their 21st birthday .

3. Psychological literature

3.1. Social networks

In 1954, Barnes introduced the concept of personal network (later renamed social networks) to describe the relationships an individual had with others. Since then several authors showed interest in the subject and along the years the concept has developed due to practical and theoretical research. Some constructs were introduced but the general meaning remained the same (Mitchell & Trickett, 1980).

Every social network comprises two dimensions: a structural dimension as for example size, composition, frequency of interaction, and stability and a functional dimension linked to the different functions the elements of the social network can offer, for example provision of information, emotional support and material assistance (Ploeg & Scholte, 1997; Prociano & Heller, 1983). The differences in the individual social networks result from the different combinations of the two dimensions (Ploeg & Scholte, 1997).
Social networks are important as it is within their social network that individuals can expect to encounter the social support that is essential in difficult times (Ploeg & Scholte, 1997). Social support can be defined as “an individual’s perceptions of general support or specific support behaviours [...] from people in their social network, which enhances their functioning and/or may buffer them from adverse outcomes” (Malecki & Demaray, 2002 p.2). This definition highlights the two components of social support: perceived support and received support. Perceived support is an individual’s perception of the support available and/or the quality of the support provided (Haber et al., 2007). On the other hand, received support is the actual support provided by the members of the support network and is linked with specific behaviours from members of the social network in order to provide support (Haber et al., 2007). Therefore, perceived support is more a cognitive concept while received support is a behavioural or practical concept. Perceived support is subjective and influenced by individual factors either long-term traits or temporary moods (Prociano & Heller, 1983).

Studies suggest that deficits in perceived social support by adolescents are positively related with emotional problems (Helsen at al., 2000), depression (Stice et al., 2004; Young et al., 2005), poor general well-being (Kef & Dekoviċ, 2004), poor self-esteem, behaviour problems (Scholte et al., 2001; Malecki & Demaray, 2002) and poor social skills (Malecki & Demaray, 2002).

When discussing support networks it is also important to consider the individual differences in the willingness to seek and accept help from others in their social network. The willingness to seek support is related with the different groups in the individuals’ support network (family, friends or others) and with the perceived helpfulness or stressfulness of the support given by each of them. Apparently individuals choose to seek support from relationships that do not cause them stress. Moreover, the willingness to seek support seems to be positively related with the frequency of contact between the individual and the different members of the support network (Barone et al., 1998).

Seeing that the aim of this study is to examine the support network of homeless 16 and 17 year olds living in hostels and specifically the support provided by family and friends it is important to get an idea of how supportive young people perceived these two sources. Moreover, it is important to gather information regarding the potential differences between these two sources of support.

The social network of young children is composed mainly of their parents and some extended family, and those relationships also constitute their main source of support (Dayan et al., 2001). Given that the relationship with parents is the child’s first experience of social contact, that relationship will serve as the basis for their social development (Ploeg & Scholte, 1997) and as a model for future interactions. As children grow, the size of their social network increases and the functions of the different groups in that network changes. Friends start to become more and more important as a source of support (Dayan et al., 2001) and older children and adolescents conceptualise their friends not just as a good company to have fun with, but also as a source of emotional and social support (Ridge, 2002). Moreover, through friends it is possible for the child to meet new people and eventually make new friendships which will enrich their social network (Ridge, 2002). Among friends children learn how to interact socially, to construct their sexual identity, to elaborate their goals and to perceive want they expect for their future (Ploeg & Scholte, 1997).

Studies in the general population show that as children growth older the amount of time spent with parents decreases and by the age of 14/15 adolescents spent half of the time with their parents that their younger peers aged 11/12 (Larson and Richards, 1991). Simultaneously, adolescents more and more prefer to spend time with their friends and more 13/14 years old (50%) than 9/10 years old (14%) choose friends when asked with whom they liked to spend time with (Nickerson and Nagle, 2005).

Additionally, as children mature they start to perceive friends as more supportive and parents as less supportive (Helsen et al, 2000, Scholte et al., 2001 Bokhorst et al 2009). Friends gradually become important as a source of emotional and practical support (for example advice). The majority of 14/15 years old (56%) would turn to friends or romantic friend for emotional support while the majority of 9/10 years old (53%) would turn to their parents. Additionally, more 14/15 years old (33%) would count on their friends or romantic friend for advice than 9/10 years old (18%) (Nickerson and Nagle, 2005). Some studies indicate that the two sources (parents and friends) are perceived as providing more or less the same support before the age of 16 (although with some gender differences) (Helsen et al, 2000) or at 17 years old (Scholte et al., 2001) while other studies show that young people aged 16 to 18 perceive their friends as more supportive than their parents (Bokhorst et al 2009).

There is evidence that the different levels of perceived support from parents and friends are correlated (Helsen et al., 2000; Scholte et al., 2001; Young et al., 2005). When parental and peer support is perceived as high or medium the outcomes for the adolescents are generally positive (Helsen et al., 2000; Scholte et al., 2001; Young et al., 2005). However, all the other combinations seem to have some negative outcomes for the young person (Helsen et al., 2000; Scholte et al., 2001; Young et al., 2005). For example, a high perceived support from friends could act as a compensation for a low perceived support from parents (Helsen et al., 2000, Scholte, 2001). However, the outcomes for the adolescent, in that situation, are usually negative as those adolescents present disruptive and aggressive behaviours, low self-esteem (Scholte, 2001), more emotional problems (Helsen et al, 2000), more depressive symptoms (Young et al., 2005) and are more likely to establish friendships with peers that present deviant behaviours (Scholte, 2001). This suggests that perceived parental support is the main factor for the well-being of adolescents. Additionally, it corroborates what was pointed out above, that the relationship with parents can affect the relationships that adolescents establish with peers (Helsen et al., 2000).
As referred to above, within this study homeless young people are all those who are living in homeless hostels. Therefore, two groups are considered in this research: young people accepted as statutory homeless and young people that are leaving the care of Local Authorities.
Some young people within these two groups similar personal histories. It was already mentioned above, that the majority of children that are placed under the care of the local Authorities had been victims of abuse and neglect . Similarly, a survey conducted by Pleace et al. (2008) with 91 statutory homeless young people aged 16 and 17 found that 40 percent had witnessed family violence, 39 percent had been victims of violence and 17 percent had been sexually abused during their childhood. Of the whole sample, 18 percent had been under the care of Local Authorities for a period of time during childhood and 28 percent had been supported as children in need. Smith et al. (1998) interviewed 56 young people and also found histories of abuse among homeless young people. However, their findings point out for a prevalence of abuse among young people coming from reconstituted families rather than young people coming from intact families.

There are, however, several differences between these two groups. First, young people that are leaving the care of the Local Authority are the responsibility of the Children’s Services Department while statutory homeless young people are the responsibility of the Housing Department. Second, looked after children had been separated from their birth family and the level of contact with their family during that period can have an impact on the support they receive when they are leaving the care of Local Authorities. Nonetheless the majority of children looked after by Local Authorities are currently placed with foster carers which, in the case the placement succeeds, can provide an additional source of support for these young people. Contrarily, statutory homeless young people lived most of their lives with their parents. For example, Peace et al. (2008), mentioned above, found that 72 percent of their sample referred to the parental home as their last settled accommodation. Finally, as looked after children are placed in residential or foster care they might have to change neighbourhood and consequently change school. This can lead to a breakdown in the relationship with friends and can consequently have negative results in the support received from peers . In opposition, most statutory homeless young people while living in the parental home do not have to go through those changes. However, when they became homeless those changes can occur.

To have a notion of the support network of homeless young people it is important to have a picture of the relationship they had with their families previously to their homelessness situation.

Several studies found that the relationship between homeless young people and their families is in most cases difficult and full of tensions and conflicts (CHAR, 1996; Ploeg & Scholte, 1997; Smith, 1998; Fitzpatrick, 2000). This troubled relationship between the young person and his/her family is in the majority of the situations the main reason for the adolescent to leave the family home (by being invited to leave or leaving by their own initiative) and become homelessness (CHAR, 1996; Ploeg & Scholte, 1997; Smith, 1998; Fitzpatrick, 2000; Pleace, 2008).

Smith (1998) found that after leaving the family home in most cases the relationship between the young person and their family improves. Additionally, young people maintained some level of contact with their family and the family tried to provide some support to adolescents. However, young people from intact families seemed to be more supported than adolescents that had left reconstituted families.

Fitzpatrick (2000) observed similar changes in the relationship between young people and their families. This author conducted a study with homeless young people or young people that had experienced a period of homelessness using group discussions with young people aged 16 to 25 and biographic interviews with 25 young people aged 16 to 19. This researcher found that after leaving the family home the relationship between the young person and their parents usually improved and although returning home did not figure to be an option for the majority of adolescents, it was important for many to have a good relationship with the progenitors. Additionally, it was observed that generally young people had frequent contact with at least one of the parents. Furthermore, most parents tried to provide some kind of support to their children after they had left their house. Contact with siblings was also considered as important and many maintained regular contact with their siblings. Siblings were also sought as a source of support by many adolescents when faced with homelessness. The contact with the extended family was not so valued and regular contact was not so common.

A study to investigate the social network of homeless people (young people and adults) conducted by Lemos and Durkacz (2002) found, as in the studies mentioned above, that most of the participants had some kind of relationship with family members and that they would rely on some family members for support. However, and opposite to the findings of Fitzpatrick (2000) the contact between the homeless person and the family was not in many cases very frequent. Also, contrary to the findings by Fitzpatrick (2000) was the fact that homeless people in their study had stronger relationships with extended family then with parents. Extended family was also seen as more supportive.
It was also observed by Lemos and Durkacz (2002) that homeless young people had mixed feelings about re-establishing relationships with family members. There were concerns regarding the past conflict, acceptance by the family members and the length of time since the last contact.

Lemos and Durkacz (2002) also observed that homeless people had some friendships but they were mainly transitory and made through homeless settings. It is interesting to notice that few participants in their study mentioned having long-term friendships.

Concerning the relationship of homeless young people with peers Fitzpatrick (2000) found that young people that had left their parents’ home but stayed in the same area (with friends or relatives, in hostels for homeless people or sleeping rough) had generally long-term friendships and could count on them although asking friends for material support, such as money or to stay in their houses was seen as difficult. On the contrary, a young person that had moved from place to place (staying in hostels for homeless people and sleeping rough outside the area where they had lived) was more likely to have transitory friendships predominantly with other homeless people.
The differences encountered between the findings of Fitzpatrick (2000) and Lemos and Durkacz (2002) might be due to the different ages of the participants in the studies and the length of time of homelessness. As it was described, the participants in Fitzpatrick’s (2000) research were between 16 and 25 years old and the ages of the participants in Lemos and Durkacz (2002) ranged from 17 to 53 years old.
Ploeg et al. (1991) cited by Ploeg and Scholte (1997), contrary to most of the studies referred to above, found that a small percentage of young people had contact with their mother (31%) or father (21%) and that the contact was not regular. The authors also found that almost all the sample (80%) reported having no “real friends”.

Pleace et al. (2008), cited above, also verified that statutory homeless young people aged 16 and 17 years old had some social support that was mainly provided by family and friends, with friends being more supportive emotionally and family used more for practical support (defined as support in a crisis situation). However, they verified that this group had less social support resources than young people of the same age group in the general population.
Lemos and Durkacz (2002), referred to above, also found that homeless people were willing to establish new friendships and re-establish old contacts as it was regarded a way of finding people that could provide some support. However, they had some concerns regarding that matter linked, for example with fear of prejudice and low self-esteem. These concerns were mainly expressed by people that had been homeless for longer periods of time.
The present study intends to fill some gaps on the study of the support network of homeless young people. Although there is some research in the United Kingdom on the subject of youth homelessness and some provides information about the support network of homeless young people, there are some points that were not examined until now. First, with the exception of the research by Lemos and Durkacz (2002) that is focused on the support network of homeless people (young people and adults); the other studies aimed to collect information about young homeless people and included a small part about their social network. Second, there is only one study aimed at statutory homeless young people aged 16 and 17 that was conducted by Pleace et al. (2008). This study collected some information about young homeless people’s support network but this was just a little part of the whole study. In addition, it is a quantitative study and does not provide much information about how young people perceive their support network. Finally, all studies in the field of youth homeless acknowledge that are many young people among that group that have been looked after by the Local Authorities, however, until now there was not a comparison between the two groups regarding their support network and possible differences. This comparison can be useful to agencies that accommodate these two groups of young people as it can give a better picture and help differentiate the level and kind of support these two groups can benefit from.

4. Methodology

4.1. Methodology

The present study used a semi-structured interview in order to obtain information about the support network of statutory homeless young people and care leavers aged 16 and 17 living in hostels in London.
The use of an individual interview was thought most appropriate as the nature of the topic would require interviewees to disclosure their personal experiences that they had with their family and friends. Additionally, a semi-structured interview uses a topic guide, constituted by a number of written questions, which means that all the participants are required to answer the same questions and in the same order which allows subsequently a more reliable comparison of the data (Bernard, 1994). Moreover, this method allows greater flexibility than a questionnaire as the researcher is face-to-face with the participant and can re-phrase questions that were not understood, obtain clarification for some of the responses given and motivate the participant to respond if necessary (Keats, 2000).

4.2. Construction of the interview

The general idea behind the interview guide was that the size of the social network is correlated with the support resources available to the individual and consequently the improvement of relationships and the increase of the social network would probably increase the support resources to the individual. Specifically, the interview and the research was restricted to the support provided by family and friends, which were the origin of the two dimensions of analysis, as young people aged 16 and 17 perceived those two social groups as their main source of support (Pleace, 2008).

The specific topics for the questions, that subsequently formed the categories and most of the subcategories, were taken from the definition of social network itself and from some research regarding homeless people. First, the fact that there are differences in the type of support that family and friends provide to young people (Pleace, 2008). Second, the findings that homeless people have generally a history of conflict with their family (see, for example, Pleace, 2008; Lemos and Durkacz 2002; Fitzpatrick, 2000 and Smith, 1998) but in general the relationship improves after the young person has left home (Fitzpatrick, 2000). Third, that homeless people see their family as important and a source of support (Lemos and Durkacz 2002 and Fitzpatrick, 2000). Fourth, evidence suggesting that homeless people have more transitory friendships that are established in homeless settings than long term friendships (Lemos and Durkacz 2002) although this fact can be related with the fact that some homeless people move from the area they lived before (Fitzpatrick, 2000). Finally, that homeless people are willing to establish new friendships although they had some concerns regarding this issue (Lemos and Durkacz 2002).
To assess all these issues, the interview questions in part two to four were based on the toolkit constructed by Lemos and Durkacz (2002) to study the support network of homeless people. Some questions were taken from that instrument and some were constructed to form the interview guide used in the present study.

The interview guide was divided into four parts. The first part contained general questions and intended to contextualise the sample: questions like the age, ethnicity, if the young people were statutory homeless or care leaver, the time spent in temporary accommodation and the accommodation where they were living immediately before were included. The second part focused on the relationship the young person had with their family and/or foster family and the support they could expect to obtain from them. The third part was directed to ascertain the quality and support young people received from people outside their family and that could be provided by friends and or boyfriends or girlfriends. In these two parts, the relationship with family and friends and the desire to improve those relationships was included in the interview guide with the aim of assessing the current social network of the young person and the willingness to improve that social network. The last part of the interview comprised a set of questions that aimed to determine the motivation and difficulties that young people had in establishing new friendships. The reason behind the final set of questions was, as mentioned above, the fact that an increase of social networks can bring an increase in the support available and/or provided to the individual.

4.3. Procedure

Five organisations that manage hostels for young people in an inner London borough were contacted to ascertain the possibility of their collaborating in the research. Three of those organisations agreed to collaborate in the study.
Additionally, the Social Services Leaving Care Team of the same borough was contacted to give information about the research and determine the procedures required to interview young people leaving the care of that Local Authority.
An application form was sent to King’s College Ethics Approval Committee and once ethical approval was granted the organisations that had agreed to co-operate in the study were contacted again. The information sheets for participants and hostel staff and the interview questions were sent to the hostel managers, and they were requested to pass the information sheets to staff and young people. The interview questions were also sent to help staff decide the eligibility of the young person to participate in the study as the nature of the research could cause distress to some young people. Additionally, the staff were asked to keep a record of the young people that were willing to participate in the study and to contact the researcher or be available to be contacted by the researcher in order to arrange a time and date convenient for both the young person and the researcher. Young people were given at least one week to consider whether they wished to take part in the research after they had received the information sheet.
The interviews were conducted during June 2009 in the premises of each hostel that had agreed to participate and those who had young people interested in participating in the study. At the start of each interview, the participant was given an oral explanation of the purpose of the interview, what was required from him/her and it was ensured that the young person had understood the information sheet that had been given to them previously. After this the young person was again asked whether or not they wished to participate in the study, and if so they were invited to sign a consent form. At the end of the interview each participant was given a supermarket voucher worth £10 as a recompense for their time. All the interviews were recorded and the ones that were used in the study (not the pilot interviews) were fully transcribed. After transcription the taped interviews were deleted and the pilot interviews were also deleted. The transcribed interviews were subsequently analysed.

4.4. The pilot study

The interview was first completed by two young homeless persons females aged 17. These first interviews constituted a pilot study and were conducted to ascertain the quality of the interview questions. In order to do this not only was the reaction to the interview questions assessed by the researcher (in terms of the difficulties young people had in answering the questions and whether the questions had to be re-phrased in order to get a reply), but at the end of the interview a general assessment of the questions was requested from the adolescents. The views expressed by the two female adolescents that completed the pilot interview were consistent with the assessment made by the researcher while the interviews were being conducted. The pilot interviews highlighted some problems in the questions that aimed to ascertain the help young people thought could be provided in order to improve relationships with family and friends and to establish new friendships. Those questions were re-phrased before use in the subsequent interviews.

4.5. Sample

The sample comprised of seven young people drawn from two hostels of the three organisations that agreed to collaborate in the study. One of the hostels was an assessment centre, specifically for single young women under 21 years old and the other was a specialised mixed hostel for single young people of 16 and 17 years old.

Of the seven participants that constitute the sample, five were female, statutory homeless, and received an income of £50.90 a week from benefits (Income Support) and two were male, care leavers, receiving £60.95 a week from Social services. Two of the statutory homeless young people were 16 years old and the remaining five were 17 years old.

Regarding the ethnicity of the participants, three considered themselves to be black (of which one affirmed to be black African and other black British), one mixed race and three white (of which one stated that he was white British).

Most young people interviewed were attending college or secondary school (n=6) except for one young person that had dropped out of school in the current academic year and was presently working, although was already enrolled in college to start a course in the next academic year.

The time young people had been living in temporary accommodation varied between 7 weeks to 2 and half years. However, six young people had been placed in temporary accommodation less than nine months ago. Immediately before having been placed in temporary accommodation three young people were living with their parents, one was living in a foster family and the remaining three had been living with friends, swapping between both parents’ homes or staying with family friends. One of the adolescents that had been placed in temporary accommodation after leaving the family home was an asylum seeker and unaccompanied minor that had travelled by himself from his country to England.
Two of the statutory homeless young people interviewed were supported by Social Services, probably as children in “need”. One of them still had a social worker at the time of the interview, although both mentioned that they could request social services support if they thought it was necessary.

4.6. Analysis of the interviews: categorization of contents

Based on the literature review and subsequently on the different parts of the interview guide two dimensions were identified: family and friends. The dimension family includes any person related to the young person by blood or a foster family. For each dimension, a group of categories and subcategories were created also based in the literature review. From the analysis of the interviews two subcategories were created, willingness to seek support and perceived support. Following this, research was conducted on this topic and included in the literature review.

For the dimension family three categories were established: current relationship, desired relationship and support. The categories and subcategories for each dimension are described in table 1.

Table 1 categories and subcategories for the dimension Family

Current relationship


Regularity of face-to-face contact

Desired relationship

Desire for more contact

Barriers to contact

Desire to improve/re-establish relationships

Motivation to improve/re-establish relationships

Help desired to improve/re-establish relationships


Willingness to seek support

Source of support 

Type of support

Perceived support

The dimension friends comprises of the same three categories as the dimension family plus a new category: motivation to make new friendships. Although the dimension friends includes the same categories included as the dimension family some of the subcategories identified are different. The categories and subcategories for the dimension friends are shown in table 2.

Table 2 Categories and subcategories for the dimension friends

Current relationship


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