It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate Stephen Gilbert on securing this debate and giving us all the chance to discuss this important issue.
Many hon. Members have spoken of their own personal experiences, including volunteering. The hon. Gentleman gave a good opening speech, in which he pointed out that he had been in a pretty desperate situation himself, doing what is called sofa-surfing, something that sounds better than it is—it is a stressful situation for anyone, as it is just one step away from becoming a rough sleeper.
Today’s debate is about Government support for young people who are homeless, but I want to start by putting on the record my tribute and thanks to the many charitable organisations that do such important work on this issue. Some have representatives here today. Since I became shadow Housing Minister, I have had a lot help, support and advice from Crisis. Its No One Turned Away campaign is one that we have all read about and, I am sure, are all passionate about. I also pay tribute to Centrepoint, St Mungo’s Broadway, Depaul, YMCA, Shelter, Homeless Link and countless others.
In my constituency and hometown of Wolverhampton there are small local charities such as P3, Home Group Stonham, the RMC—Refugee and Migrant Centre—TLC college and the Haven. Churches all round the country also help people, through soup kitchens and also, sometimes, by providing shelter. Only yesterday, in Bedford, I visited the YMCA Beds for All home, which provides housing and support for homeless people of a variety of ages who have just come out of hospital. It was tremendous to see the work that the YMCA is doing to help those people turn their lives around.
My hon. Friend Simon Danczuk pointed out that we are one of the richest countries in the world. That is why it is so incredibly tragic and unacceptable that homelessness is with us. We talk about the numbers, but in my opinion one homeless person is one too many. I am sure that homelessness must be a terrifying experience for anybody, but it is particularly so for young people. The youth homelessness charity Centrepoint estimates that as many as 80,000 young people in the UK experience homelessness of some kind every year. As the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay highlighted, according to research by Crisis, half of all homeless people first became homeless under the age of 21. The majority of those who, unfortunately, first experience homelessness at such a young age face that experience again and again because they cannot get the help they need.
When a person has a number of complex problems, it can take only one thing to tip them into homelessness. When I visited a Crisis at Christmas centre over the Christmas period, I was reminded of that. I asked one of the volunteer chefs, “Why do you give up 10 days of your time during the Christmas period, when there is family pressure on you to be at home, to do what you are doing here?” He said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” That was a stark reminder that it is all too easy for people to reach that tipping point and find themselves in such a situation.
Many hon. Members have already pointed out that many young people are driven to homelessness by a dispute at home or by their families kicking them out. The dispute might be due to overcrowding in the family home, as Duncan Hames said, or because the young person or someone in their family has a new or existing mental health problem. All sorts of issues contribute to those tragic situations. If the young person does not have family support, which is vital, although many of us take it for granted, it is all too easy for them to enter a downward spiral.
As many hon. Members have said, young homeless people are much more vulnerable than the rest of the homeless population. Shockingly, two in five have experienced abuse at home and a third have been in care. There are also wider structural causes, such as a lack of affordable housing, the housing crisis, extreme poverty, unemployment and worklessness.
I am proud of the previous Labour Government’s record. We were determined to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness, and during our period in office there was a 70% drop in the numbers. We launched the flagship Supporting People programme, created the rough sleepers unit to reduce rough sleeping, and dramatically reduced the number of people and families in long-term bed-and-breakfast accommodation. When we left office there was still more to do, but I fear that since 2010, for a number of reasons, that progress has been rolled back.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale said, we have had a deep recession, but apparently we are in a recovery and the economy is growing. However, the number of people who are homeless and sleeping rough has continued to rise. Data from the Combined Homeless and Information Network, or CHAIN—a recording system for the homelessness charity St Mungo’s Broadway —show that 762 people found sleeping on the streets of London last year were under 25, which was a big increase on the 436 it found in 2009-10. For every person on the street, there are thousands without a decent, secure home.
I welcome the Government’s “No Second Night Out” initiative, which builds on some of the things we did in government, but I am afraid that some of their broader actions have made things much harder for young people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.