When groups of children are asked to describe a homeless person, the response is generally the same. "Dirty, smelly, ugly, poor." When I ask adults the answers are along similar lines, albeit with a wider vocabulary. Quite honestly, I thought the same until I became homeless myself. People both young and old perceive homeless people as just those we see outside tube stations and department stores: the rough sleepers.
The reality is much more complex. For instance, while most of the homeless young people come from lower income families there were also people like me. I come from a well off family and have a private education but I found myself homeless two years ago after arguments with my family became too much.
I'm not alone. According to new research by Centrepoint, a shocking 67% of homeless young people were left without a home due to family breakdown. I knew some friends were arguing with their family about their sexuality before being kicked out, but I had no idea how many young people were forced to leave their homes because the arguments had become too much. Stories of emotional, physical or sexual abuse floated around but what is even more alarming is 21% of homeless young people experienced violence in the home and felt they have to leave for their own safety.
All families argue, but for too many young people they are a daily occurrence that can spill over into violence. Imagine the atmosphere in your home, the place you're supposed to feel safest, becoming so unbearable you simply can't stay? This is the reality for far too many young people, and even more are on the brink of disaster. You don't see that moment of crisis coming. You're left not knowing what to do or where to go next.
None of the options are attractive by any stretch of the imagination. For my own experience, presenting yourself to the council as homeless is a hard thing to do. First, you have to accept the difficult truth yourself. Next you have to convince a merry-go-round of bureaucrats you are worthy of their assistance by proving your homelessness was unintentional and your eligibility for assistance.
You have to prove this all with documentation and no assistance. Local authorities will give any excuse to avoid giving you the help you need and you can find yourself back where you started with far less options before the end of the day. For those people there are only one or two things left to do; sleep rough or sofa surf.
Sofa surfing is not the adventurous lifestyle it sounds. Young people in this situation are often staying with strangers making them vulnerable to exploitation and further abuse.
Charities such as Centrepoint providing shelter and support are vital in tackling the problem but the government needs to make sure vulnerable young people are protected. Plans to cut Housing Benefit for 18-21 year-olds on Job Seeker's Allowance could put thousands of people, both now and in the future, at risk of homelessness. I can tell you from personal experience that living on state benefits is not a lifestyle young people choose. They are in fact a vital lifeline in getting themselves in a position to live independently.
Simple actions such as signing Centrepoint's petition, writing to your MP, sponsoring a room, or even just having a chat one day to a lonely homeless person can have a genuinely meaningful and positive impact in the fight to end homelessness nationwide.