05/04/2017 13:07 BST | Updated 06/04/2018 06:12 BST

Left In Limbo: How Housing Benefit Changes Will Leave Young People Out In The Cold

Matt Cardy via Getty Images

"Today it is still possible to leave school, sign on, find a flat, start claiming Housing Benefit and opt for a life on benefits. It's time for bold action here." - then Prime Minister David Cameron MP, Conservative Party Conference 2013.

It's hard to believe it was four years ago that David Cameron mooted the ideology behind removing automatic entitlement to Housing Benefit for young people.

Speaking to his party faithful, he put forward an emotive case of benefits abuse and people across the country, who were in some areas only just emerging from the worst of the 2008 economic crash, listened and (in part, at least) nodded in agreement.

Even in the charity sector we were aware of the fact that some young people do make a life choice of relying on benefits. However, we were also aware of a darker truth behind the policy for we could see ahead of us the devastating impact it would have on the majority of young people - young people who were not choosing a life on benefits; who had no option but to ask for help; and who were vulnerable, homeless or just out of Care. We had to make a case.

And, to the Government's credit they listened.

Through their discussions with the sector, key exemptions were added for the most vulnerable and the list of those who would be supported grew longer. At the same time as these changes were announced, the Government's own rhetoric changed either through sector discussions or, perhaps, through its own acceptance that there were issues at the centre of the policy.

In the early days of the announcement, headline grabbing claims of tens of millions of pounds of savings were lauded alongside the ending of youth unemployment via the Youth Obligation and the desire for all young people to have the same options post-education. In time this softened and we were left with a fully ideological policy that we felt could still support those who needed help most.

But as we saw this past weekend with the implementation of the Universal Credit (Housing costs element for claimants aged 18 to 21) (Amendment) Regulations 2017, the Government has instead created a policy that will undo much of the efforts of the sector and itself to protect the most vulnerable.

While well-intended and comprehensive exemptions are still in place they are at worst totally unworkable and fundamentally flawed.

A weakness at the centre of the policy has created a catch-22 situation where the most vulnerable young people who ask for help are unable to get the financial support they need to prevent their homelessness until they, themselves, have found a tenancy. Of course, finding a landlord who will offer a tenancy to a young person with no proof they will be able to access housing support will be unlikely if not totally impossible.

As a sector we estimate this could leave up to 9,000 18 to 21-year-olds with no recourse to housing support when they need it most. So instead of targeting the minority of young people who the Government believed were "choosing" benefits, this policy has cast its net over the entire age group, negatively impacting on all those who are at risk of homelessness.

Where does this leave the thousands of young people who are homeless and have no access to housing support?

At providers like YMCA? Perhaps, but nine out of 10 of our hostels have waiting lists as those already in our accommodation are unable to move on due to the lack of affordable places they can rent.

On the streets? More likely without significant change to this policy or, more preferably, the abandonment of it all together.

While YMCA recognises the ideological premise behind the removal of automatic housing support for some young people with exemptions, it can only have the impact the Government desires with major policy change. That is why we are calling on the Government to take immediate action to address the failings in the policy.