How schools can help tackle the scourge of homelessness

Pupils might receive top marks for maths and English, but do they know their housing rights, asks Tom Laurie

Tom Laurie

How schools can help tackle the scourge of homelessness

Recent figures from the Scottish government have highlighted a direct link between youth homelessness and the care system. More than 700 people in Scotland who had left care within the last five years registered as homeless last year, with at least one young person a week going straight from care without a place to call home.

Duncan Dunlop, chief executive of Who Cares? Scotland, said that no one in the care system will be surprised by the scale of the problem. I’m certainly not.

Young people – not just care leavers, but more generally – are often not given the skills they need to maintain tenancies, look after a home and survive on their own. Care leavers lack a safety net for when they can’t pay the bills on time or they don’t understand how to pay their council tax which can cause a domino effect on the rest of their life. One bill unpaid can quickly spiral into missed payments elsewhere, forcing them into a debt that they can’t pay and, before they know it, they’re homeless.

Quick read: How poor housing is harming pupils

Statistics: Homeless children on the increase in Scotland

Exclusions: The sad link between pupil homelessness and exclusion

Student voice: What do young people want from their education?

By the time a young person leaves school, they might be receiving top marks for maths, English and biology, but if you ask them what their rights are as a tenant, more often than not, they’ll struggle to answer.

There is a lot of ongoing conversation around homelessness and how to tackle it, with a lot of organisations working towards doing so. Yet, while it’s vital that we are reacting, it’s also crucial that we are also being proactive in our approach. We need to prevent the situation from arising in the first place.

The tenancy and citizenship course set up by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) in 2015 covers modules such as being a good neighbour, gaining and sustaining a tenancy, looking after your home, and managing personal finances. It imparts young people with a sense of the rights and responsibilities they need to be aware of as a tenant.

Yet, only a small proportion of Scottish young people have completed or been offered the course.

While the causes of homelessness can be extremely complex, evidence shows many local authorities are experiencing breakdowns in tenancies; various reasons result in tenants being asked to leave.

If we can teach young people the skills they need to survive on their own two feet, maybe we can increase the number of successful tenancies and allow young people to live healthier and happier lives.

The young people at Kibble are being offered the course, and there’s been interest from housing associations and homeless organisations, but we really need more care providers, mainstream schools, youth organisations and colleges to get on board.

We speak of young people in care being more vulnerable but what about those living in poverty or those who have faced trauma or adversity elsewhere in society? We need to be able to reach them too. There is also a call for this teaching to be available to young people leaving prison, and there is engagement from Dumfries Prison.

Educating people on the responsibilities of a tenant, and explaining to them the importance of simple things like taking your bins out, paying the bills and noise reduction, while providing information on tenant rights across each local authority, can allow us to look at increasing the rate of successful placements – and, of course, saves local authorities on the cost of rehoming.

It’s vital that everyone has the understanding of what it means to be a good citizen and how to manage their personal lives, with skills that allow them to maintain employment and tenancies. It’s not going to solve the homelessness issue overnight – but it might just help prevent our young people getting into vulnerable situations.

Tom Laurie is headteacher at Kibble, a specialist provider of services for young people in Scotland facing adversity or trauma, based in Paisley and Glasgow

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