Young women unsafe and separated from children under government housing policy

The government’s housing benefit policy is forcing under-35s into unsafe and inadequate housing that puts many young women at risk, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Southampton, published with Young Women’s Trust.

Researchers conducted interviews with people who, under current government policy are entitled to a lower rate of housing benefit due to their age and are forced to live in shared accommodation, usually with strangers. They found that the system is putting young women in danger of violence, abuse and discrimination, and keeping some apart from their children. In many cases, poor quality housing – often the only option for under-35s who receive less financial support due to their age – posed a health and safety risk to tenants. Worsening mental health was a common problem among the young claimants.

Working with Young Women’s Trust, which supports young women on low or no pay, Dr Eleanor Wilkinson and Dr Iliana Ortega-Alcázar uncovered numerous unintended – and often devastating – consequences of the policy. They spoke to young domestic abuse victims who now had no choice but to live with male strangers, a situation that is damaging to their sense of safety, their mental health and their overall recovery process. Young LGBT, black and ethnic minority women were particularly vulnerable too, with reports of racist and homophobic abuse being directed at them by those they were living with. While people with certain disabilities are exempt from the policy, mental health is not always taken into consideration and those already struggling with issues such as anxiety and depression reported a downward spiral while living with strangers.

The policy has also been responsible for preventing mothers regaining custody of their children. Some are experiencing a catch-22 situation, in which their age and the fact their child is not living with them prevents them claiming the benefit that allows them to move out of shared accommodation, but they are not allowed to have their child live with them in shared accommodation in order to become eligible to move out.

Report researcher Dr Eleanor Wilkinson said:

“These changes to housing welfare were brought about to make economic savings, yet at what social cost? Our research has highlighted that these welfare cuts have hit some of the most vulnerable young people in society. Many of the young women interviewed expressed frustration at trying to negotiate their way through a bureaucratic welfare system that did not account for their complex housing needs. We urge the Government to conduct further research into the everyday impacts of these housing welfare reforms, in order to ensure that everyone has a safe and secure place to call home.”

Young Women’s Trust chief executive Dr Carole Easton OBE said:

“The more we learn about this failing policy the more deplorable it seems. Not content with discriminating arbitrarily on age to leave young people with poorer quality housing, the policy actively puts many young women in danger. No matter their age, no one should be made to feel unsafe, be treated with less dignity or separated – purely on the basis of a legislative loophole – from their children.

“The Government should address these unintended consequences, which are having a devastating effect, and consider scrapping the ‘shared accommodation rate’ of housing benefit that sees under-35s receiving £41 less a week towards their rent and forces them to live with strangers. As one young woman put it: her rent does not triple overnight on her 35thbirthday; young people need decent, safe housing whatever their age.”

Young Women’s Trust is campaigning for equal housing support for young people and against age discrimination more broadly.

Note to editors

  1. Young Women’s Trust is a charity supporting women aged 18-30 on low or no pay. The charity provides direct services to help young women into work and runs campaigns.
  2. This research was conducted at the University of Southampton and funded by the Economic & Social Science Research Council (grant ES/L010569/1).