By: Preben Brandt
I wonder which parties that, during the coming election campaign will talk about, pledge and subsequently will be active in doing something about the increasing number of homeless youth. It will not be the first time these past years that somebody has brought this matter forward, but it will be the first time that a general election is imminent and the first where we, as a society, cannot escape the fact that the issue of young people becoming homeless is both significant and verifiable.
The number of people, who, for shorter or longer periods, have lived as homeless has deviated, but has overall increased somewhat during these past years. The number of young people including the very young, have steadily increased according to the homeless counts, which have taken place every second year since 2007. These homeless youth are easily lost in the kind of social political thinking, where primarily the employment policy counts with the Ministry of Employment as the main actor within legislation and with employment departments and job centres at the practical level in the local councils. Fortunately, the majority of the young people is doing well.
According to Statistics Denmark, in 2014 half a million young people were between 16 and 24 and of those approximately 33.000 were on social security at the end of 2014. During the homeless count in week 6 of 2013, approximately 1.200 young people between 18 and 24 were homeless. Generally, you could say that by far the majority of young people is enrolled in education and in employment. Just under ten percent are not doing so well, and a small group of young people, about three per mille, is socially doing quite poorly. At any rate, this small group of homeless youth has increased since 2007. At the time they counted just under 700.
I started being interested in homeless youth in the late 80’s, the group of homeless youth has steadily increased. You could argue that it is an insignificant number, but no matter how few they are, it is still an actual number of young people with dreams and desires who have to see their lives go down the drain because we are not able to help them – neither before they become homeless and when they are actually living rough. This small group is overlooked and made invisible. The interest is transferred to the many young people, who can fight for themselves or who can, either with little or a great deal of help be it through the carrot-and-stick approach, get on their feet. It is pure common sense ethics to the good of the many and it will pay off. However, is this worthy of a welfare society?
We know from some, but surprisingly few, surveys something about the homeless youth. We know that a number of essential issues, notably abuse of cannabis, mental illness, poverty and weak social network challenges the very young homeless, and are conspicuous. Additionally, the young people come from all walks of life, but it is very much young people starting their life with difficult conditions resulting in wandering. Many of the young people have suffered considerable neglect and fewer, but not very few, have been placed outside their home with foster families, in child and youth centres, having as consequence that many of the young people have poor or non-existent family networks as well as brittle and undesirable friendship networks. It is not only for ordinary young people where things have gone bad.
The young people, who become homeless, carry wounds to both mind and body with them into homelessness and therefore they do not have the same choices than retiring from what we call mainstream society. The young people that we do not see and whose destiny we would rather not know about are met in the same way, as far as social efforts are concerned, as the thousands of young people on social security. In principle, it might be likeable, but the result is not. Generally, and in the world of politics be it one or the other of the political blocs, social mobility is an expression of social climbing by own means or through social initiatives. This kind of social mobility up the social ladder gives the person doing it honour, recognition and respect. I am one of them who went that way so I know that it is like and I cannot say that I do not bask in the sun of the reputation of we, who had the power, the luck and the support of the society to climb to the top. The other kind of social mobility; the one where you do not just move a bit but all the down the social ladder such as the young person, who becomes homeless. This happens through your own force and through misfortune and supported by the social exclusion mechanisms of society. It calls for humiliation, contempt and disrespect. You could say that the person moving upwards, or born at the top, is valuable and should be treated as such whereas the person moving downwards is without value and should be treated as such. You could look at it that way and perhaps the values of society are being compared measured against this vulnerable group and always have been. In any case, the ethic and human values as well as the ability and will to show them care.
What is it that you could reasonably expect from the political parties and of course, especially from those who have the influence and the power to change anything? It is not the actual social work. The responsibility for the work quality lies with the local councils and the practitioners. The frames and the visions, and thus the social legislation to safeguard the young people, whose social mobility leads them into homelessness, that I wish would be placed on the social political agenda of the election campaign. It is not only a question of more money. Money does not help if it is only for more of the usual. You cannot escape the usual, but it has proven insufficient or rather contributed to excluding more people. The list of what you think is the right thing to do for the time being is long.
The headline says more affordable housing, preferably ordinary flats in council housing. It says that homeless youth should not be referred to hostels or similar accommodation and in any case not stay there long. Mentors are available to support the young persons in his/hers personal, positive development thus leading the young person into the job market. There are various initiatives for children, who have grown up under distressing circumstances. It says initiatives against crime and in the abuse area. Consequently initiatives such as clever prevention, efficient treatment, result-oriented social support, council housing. Initiatives that we know from decades of social work; well, actually from the past two hundred years social work, things that we know well and convinced that it is the right thing to do. However, it does not work.
So what am I inciting? To stop thinking the same things, but instead to think radically new. Under the headlines are many sub points besides all the classics. Let us turn it upside down; take each of the known initiatives and confront them with their opposite. Let us use these opposites as basis of our visions, letting them become the foundation of both legislation and practice, thus forming the basis of a homeless reform. For homeless youth and for all other aspects of homelessness.
Preben Brandt’s feature was published in the ”Berlingske” on 5th May