World Homeless Day - Lauren's Story

by | Oct 10, 2021

Two in five UK employers are unaware that it is legal to hire a homeless person – it’s time to encourage employers to alter their perceptions and make a difference to a homeless young person’s life. 

My name is Lauren and I live in Leeds, West Yorkshire. After experiencing homelessness as a young person and encountering various discriminatory attitudes and behaviours during this time, it fueled a fire inside me that I hadn’t known before. It made me want to challenge the misconceptions surrounding people experiencing homelessness and advocate for fairer employment opportunities that have the potential to break the cycle of homelessness.

The journey towards financial independence and stable accommodation is by no means an easy route to take. Over 121,000 young people in the UK are forced to embark on this journey when they are permanently excluded from a stable home, with the process being significantly more overwhelming for young people experiencing additional circumstances such as mental illness, leaving statutory care, drug or alcohol dependencies, criminal records or being a young parent. Secure employment within a well established business is ideal for a homeless young person to safely raise the funds they need to begin an independent life away from the family home. However, finding meaningful and fulfilling employment as a homeless young person is challenging because there are so many negative public perceptions surrounding your circumstances. It’s no secret that there is a pre-existing social stigma around homeless people. Evolve Housing evidenced that more than a quarter of people in the UK (28%) believe people sleeping rough are to blame for living on the streets.

Negative perceptions of homelessness and the impact on a young person’s self worth:

Even in law it is an arrestable offence to sleep rough or beg on the streets, which fuels the public misconception that homeless people are criminals or must have done something wrong to end up homeless. Myself and many other young people who have experienced homelessness can recall dropping out of education and training courses because of the little understanding that tutors showed towards our circumstances, even to the point of not believing that we were truly ‘homeless’ because we currently had a physical roof over our heads, despite our living conditions being temporary or unstable. This puts homeless young people at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for job positions that require qualifications as a minimum requirement and pushes them farther away from the labour market.

Employers and recruiters have the power to make a real difference to a young homeless person’s outlook and lifestyle, but they are often hesitant about hiring a homeless person at their business, likely due to being influenced by the common perceptions of homeless people and young people. A 2020 YouGov poll of UK employers and employees found that 17% of employers were concerned that hiring someone who was homeless would have a negative effect on other employees. Pairing this statistic with the various public stigmas around young people’s mental health, young parents and young people with criminal records highlights the unique barriers these young people face when it comes to the labour market and applying for jobs.

Whilst I was homeless, I felt pressured to look for informal cash-in-hand jobs and zero-hour contracts for flexible hours, despite knowing deep down that neither of these routes were realistically going to financially support me, I felt like I didn’t have a chance of getting a stable job within a well structured company.

So, what can employers realistically do to better support young people experiencing homelessness and disadvantage?

In my opinion, one of the best ways to learn about the benefits of accepting homeless young people into your workplace and helping them gain the skills they need to step into the labour market, is to provide work experience programmes. There are many employers who have taken positive steps to welcoming people from disadvantaged backgrounds into their workplace by creating employment initiatives for homeless people to learn new skills and qualifications and gain valuable work experience.

The well known restaurant chain, Nando’s, supports a number of homeless charities in the UK, offering vital services to homeless young people such as recruitment events, where homeless youth can learn how to support their independence and develop their skills with a real opportunity to gain permanent employment with Nando’s upon completion. In the year 2020, the partnerships Nando’s created with important charities had a positive impact on 1,291 young people’s lives through employability workshops, training, support and career discovery days. Nando’s is a perfect example of an inclusive employer who are working towards eliminating the stigma surrounding homeless young people and their abilities to work and are providing crucial opportunities that don’t come along often for young people who are homeless.

The coffee shop chain, Pret A Manger, created their Rising Stars Programme in 2008, which has now offered over 330 places to homeless people. Alongside work experience within their shops they provide accommodation, mentoring, counselling, financial support and training. This gives homeless people the best chance of climbing the career ladder, whether with Pret or with another business.

Another great initiative is the ‘Ban the box’ campaign, launched by Business in the Community. It calls on UK employers to give young people and adults with a criminal record a fair chance to compete for jobs by focusing on their skills and qualifications before asking for declaration of any criminal convictions. Centrepoint data shows that homeless young people who have been in prison are significantly more likely to be unemployed or actively looking for work, with 55% of them being jobseekers in comparison to the 36% of homeless young people without criminal convictions.

Becoming a Ban the Box employer can help to reduce the high levels of unemployment amongst homeless young people with criminal records and provide the much needed new beginnings they need to break away from the cycle of reoffending and be financially secure enough to find stable accommodation. Employers who have signed up to the initiative, including Asda, Boots, Lloyds Banking Group and AgeUK, have reported that it has brought positivity to their businesses and even boosted their reputation amongst customers!

Every employer that signs up to initiatives and schemes designed to help support homeless young people into work is discovering the benefits of diversifying their business and helping young people in their local communities achieve financial stability they need to secure and maintain permanent accommodation. The amount of employers who have felt positive about hiring workers from marginalised backgrounds outweigh the amount of employers who have concerns about the negative effects it may bring, evidencing that it truly is a worthy investment in homeless youth who have faced adversity and chaotic backgrounds.

As a young person who has experienced homelessness in the past, I hope this encourages more employers to reconsider any negative perceptions of the homeless community and the challenges they face by signing up to campaigns such as ‘Ban the Box’ or connecting with local youth charities to create employment and training partnerships. By becoming an inclusive employer, you are giving a homeless young person more than just financial security, you are giving them the hope, purpose and self-belief they often need after facing traumatic or difficult experiences.