12th September 2017
This blog was written by Paula Mayock and Sarah Parker, School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin. For an audio version, scroll to the bottom of the page or visit our Soundcloud profile.
Homelessness represents one of the most extreme manifestations of social exclusion, and the consequences for young people are arguably even more severe than for adults. Unlike homeless adults, young people who leave home prematurely are leaving relationships based on social and economic dependence – on a parent or guardian – and they suddenly face the challenge of a rapid transition to adulthood without the necessary financial, emotional or social supports. Large numbers of young people will also have experienced trauma in their home environments during the months and years prior to first becoming homeless. There is now robust evidence in several European countries, including the UK and Ireland, that experiences of violence, victimisation and domestic abuse are common among young people who experience homelessness (Fitzpatrick, 2000; Mayock et al., 2014; Quilgars, 2011; Quilgars et al. 2008).
In this blog, we discuss the relationship between youth homelessness and domestic abuse. First, we look at violence and abuse as a cause of homelessness. Second, we talk about young people’s experiences in the spaces they occupyy after becoming homeless, where many encounter further exposure to violence. Third, we sketch what we describe as the cyclical nature of violence and abuse within these young people’s lives.
We will draw on the narrative accounts of young people who participated in a recently completed qualitative longitudinal study of youth homelessness in Ireland, which ‘tracked’ the experiences of homeless young people over a period of more than two years (between mid-2013 and mid-2016). These young people’s accounts provide a brief glimpse into their experiences of domestic abuse, violence and victimisation, and shed light on the ways in which homelessness and abuse intersect over time.
Young people’s pathways out of home: violence, conflict and abuse in family settings
Complex, typically long-standing and sometimes severe family difficulties – including experiences of childhood neglect, physical and/or emotional victimisation, sexual abuse, parental substance misuse and domestic violence perpetrated by parents, step-parents and/or siblings – were very commonly reported and were central to the narrative accounts of a large number of the study’s young people. For many, these experiences began during early childhood and persisted into adolescence, culminating in young people either being ‘thrown out’ of their homes or fleeing voluntarily to escape volatile, unstable and abusive home environments:
“He [step father] was trying to batter [beat] me like but I ran out of the house, now I’m barred from the house” (Ashley, age 19).
Social work intervention was reported by young people to be unsuccessful in most of these instances, often due to professionals favouring parental accounts.
“[Social workers] never listen to me, what I have to tell them or anything. Like when they ask me the reasons why I don’t want to be at my ma’s and I’ve told him the reasons and showed him the marks and the things that I’ve had while I was there and they never even bothered doing anything about it” (Aaron, age 16).
Other barriers to disclosing domestic abuse included young peoples’ fears that disclosing abuse would result in an escalation of violence and/or their removal from the family home and placement in care.
Young People’s Journeys Through Homelessness: Violence and Victimisation in the Context of Homelessness
Very frequently, young people did not immediately access homelessness services (often because of the stigma attached to the label ‘homeless’) and, instead, stayed temporarily with family members or friends. However, these living arrangements usually proved unsustainable and young people subsequently entered into the official network of homeless youth via the homeless hostel or shelter system. Without exception, young people depicted ‘hostel life’ in sharply negative terms, often reporting a culture of intimidation and bullying and stating that they constantly feared for their safety and personal belongings: “I actually had to sleep with my bags tied around my legs so I couldn’t get robbed” (Fiona, age 19). A number of young women reported that they had experienced sexual harassment in the contexts of emergency shelter provision and/or when sleeping rough.
During our first interview with Oisín, he told that he had been exposed to extreme violence in his family home as a child: “My old fella used to batter [beat] my ma like, do you know what I mean. We all used to batter each other and all, we were killing [hitting] each other … that’s what was going on” (Oisín, age 24). When we re-interviewed Oisín approximately two years later he recounted the experience of sleeping rough, explaining that he had witnessed violent assaults in street-based settings, which left him feeling “disturbed”.
“A bloke beside me, the whole back of his neck all the way around there, ripped open right in front of me … You could be with 6 or 7 blokes, you could fall asleep, one of them could do a turn [become violent]. You don’t what’s gonna happen … But we [referring to friend] were both right disturbed after seeing some bad assaults. Its bang out violent, do you know what I mean? (Oisín, age 26).
The cyclical nature of violence and abuse
Experiences of violence and abuse were deeply traumatic and distressing for young people, and many who reported early experiences of domestic abuse frequently went on to experience other forms of violence and victimisation in their lives. Sarah, for example, explained that her childhood was characterised by sustained domestic abuse in her family home: “They [referring to father and step mother] were very abusive, just like violent they were very violent towards each other as well and the Guards [police] were always called. We had a horrible life growing up” (Sarah, age 23). She told that she then entered into an abusive relationship in her early 20s because she “thought it was normal”.
“He [partner] used to be vicious and I used to take it because like is this what happens to you? Do you just get battered by everybody? It was because like I knew no better, I was after growing up like that so I thought it was normal and I think I was used to all the conflict. Like I wasn't used to anyone being nice or you know anything like that. I used to look at myself and compare myself to my mam … I was saying, ‘I am destined to be like me ma I don't deserve anything better but what me Ma had’”.
Sarah’s was not an isolated story; other young women also told of intimate partner relationships where they experienced challenges and difficulties related to various forms of emotional and/or physical abuse.
Providing safe environments where young people can discuss issues related to violence and abuse – underpinned by the aim of interrupting experiences of violence across the life course – must be seen as paramount. Rarely, if ever, did young people speak about having had the opportunity to talk about or discuss ways of dealing with these issues or experiences in their interactions with service professionals. It is also clear that there is a high risk that young people may experience further trauma related to violence/victimisation after they enter into the homeless service sector. Swift exits from homelessness services to stable, sustainable housing are therefore critical. Equally, it must be recognised that the provision of housing alone will not necessarily mark an end to homelessness or housing instability in the case of young people. Tailored support – including programmes that specifically seek to address the trauma resulting from past or more recent experiences of violence and abuse – are required if solutions to youth homelessness are to be successful and lasting.
Dr. Paula Mayock is an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and has been conducting research on homelessness for several years. She is the founder of the Women’s Homelessness in Europe Network (WHEN), which aims to promote research and scholarship on women’s homelessness at a European level (www.homelessness.org).
Sarah Parker is a PhD student and Government of Ireland Scholar at the School of Social Work and Social Policy, TCD and is researching family homelessness and housing exclusion.
Fitzpatrick, S. (2000) Young Homeless People. Basingstoke: Macmillan
Mayock, P., Parker, S. and Murphy, A. (2014) Young People, Homelessness and Housing Exclusion. Dublin: Focus Ireland, Dublin. https://www.focusireland.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Mayock-Parker-and-Murphy-2014-Young-People-Homelessness-and-Housing-Exclusion-FULL-BOOK.pdf
Mayock, P. and Parker, S. (2017) Living in Limbo: Homeless Young People’s Paths to Housing. Dublin: Focus Ireland. https://www.focusireland.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Mayock-and-Parker-2017-Living-in-Limbo-Homeless-Young-Peoples-Paths-to-Housing-FINAL-BOOK.pdf
Quilgars, D. (2011) Youth homelessness. In: E. O’Sullivan, v. Busch-Geertsema, D. Quilgars and N. Pleace (Eds) Homelessness Research in Europe. Brussels: FEANTSA. pp. 187-210.
Quilgars, D., Johnsen, S. and Pleace, N. (2008) Ending Youth Homelessness: Possibilities, Challenges and Practical Solutions. Centre for Housing Policy, University of York and School of the Built Environment, Heriot-Watt University.
Phase 1 of the longitudinal research referred to here was funded by Focus Ireland and Phase 2 was funded by Focus Ireland in collaboration with Simon Communities of Ireland, Threshold, Peter McVerry Trust and Society of St Vincent de Paul.
 The research used a biographical or ‘life story’ approach, which enabled young people to tell their stories in a way that was personally relevant and meaningful. The conduct of follow-up interviews allowed young people to reflect on their situations and to construct narratives rooted in experience, both past and present (Mayock et al., 2014; Mayock and Parker, 2017).