If you are aged 16 or 17 and you become homeless, you will normally be entitled to accommodation from social services. Social services can also provide financial assistance, help with training and education, and support to help you tackle personal issues.
If you used to be in care, the rules are slightly different.
Many young people have problems getting help from the council or are sent from one department to another. If this happens, contact a Shelter advice centre immediately. A specialist adviser can negotiate with the council on your behalf and ensure that you get what you are entitled to. Use our directory to find your local advice centre.
Read Shelter's guide Young people and housing rights (40 pages) for more information on help for young people
Who does social services have to help?
Social services have a legal duty to help most homeless people who are aged 16 or 17. They can't just turn you away or tell you to go to the housing department of your local council. You are entitled to housing and/or financial support from social services if you are under 18 and you:
- are disabled, or
- have been in care for 13 weeks or more since the age of 14, at least some of which was while you were aged 16 or 17, or
- have come to the UK from abroad and are not here with a parent or guardian, or
- are classed as being a 'child in need' (almost all 16 or 17 year olds who have nowhere to live will be classed as 'in need' - see below for more information).
It is unusual for a 16 or 17 year old not to be entitled to housing and support from social services. This is only likely to be the case if:
- you had been living independently for some time before you became homeless, or
- you do not accept an offer of accommodation because you do not want to be 'looked after' by social services.
If social services say that they do not have a duty to house you, you should get specialist advice as soon as you can. This decision could mean that you are entitled to less help, both now and in the future. Call Shelter's helpline or use our directory to find a local advice service.
Disabled young people
If you are a disabled young person and are homeless or likely to become homeless, you should automatically be accepted as a child in need and be offered help by social services. In most cases, the housing department also has a responsibility to help you, so the two departments should work together.
Care leavers who are under the age of 18 and have spent a total of at least 13 weeks in care since the age of 14 are entitled to accommodation and financial support from social services.
Social services have to house you until you turn 18 and should provide ongoing help until you turn 21. If you are at college or university full time, this can be extended until your 24th birthday (or until your course ends, if that happens first). See the section on social services and care leavers for information about the help you should receive.
Children in need
You should be considered to be a 'child in need' if you need help to manage the things that affect your health and development. This might be the case if:
- you don't have money for food, or
- you don't have anywhere to live, or
- you are having problems that affect your health or education, or
- you are living with a violent person, or
- your parents or guardians are not willing or able to look after you or allow you to live at home.
How do you apply for help?
You can go directly to social services and tell them that you need help because you are homeless. In some areas the social services department will be part of the same council as the housing department and in some areas they will be different.
Explain how your housing problems are affecting your health or development. For example:
- sleeping on the streets can damage your health
- having nowhere to live could lead to stress or depression
- it will be harder to get or keep a job if you don't have a stable home
- studying will be very difficult
- any medical problems you already have may get worse
- you need help to sort out problems in your relationship with your parents or guardians
- if you have problems with drugs or alcohol it's harder to sort yourself out.
If you have any problems getting help from social services, you should get advice immediately. Use our directory to find a local advice service. They may be able to tell you what sort of help social services normally provide in your area, give you an idea of what you can expect, and or help you to make a complaint (see below).
What help can you expect from social services?
Social services will have to assess your needs in order to check what help you are entitled to. They should provide accommodation for you while they do this if you have nowhere else to stay.
The law doesn't say exactly what help social services should give you and different councils have different rules. It will depend on your personal situation, what is available in your area and how much it costs. You should be given a range of services to help you with any problems you are having. If you are homeless this could include:
- accommodation - this might be a room in a hostel, foyer, nightstop scheme or supported housing. Bed and breakfast is not considered to be suitable for people under 18, even in an emergency. In rare cases, you may even be offered self-contained accommodation, although if this happens social services should also provide help to ensure you can manage a tenancy on your own - ie advice on budgeting, paying bills, claiming benefits and being a good tenant/neighbour.
- money for a deposit and/or rent in advance
- help with finding training or employment
- help with drug or alcohol problems
- friendship and support
- counselling and/or help with any other problems you have.
Do social services have to listen to what you say you need?
If you are 16 or over your wishes cannot be overruled by your family and social services cannot force you to go back home (see below).
Social services have to take your wishes into account when they decide what kind of accommodation to give you. However, this does not mean that they have to give you what you want. It's important to be realistic, as the type of accommodation you may get will depend on what is available in your area.
Social services should also consider your gender and your ethnic and religious background when deciding how to help you.
Can social services try to make you go back home?
In most cases, both the housing department and social services will want to see whether it is possible for you to return home by resolving any problems you have with your parents or guardians through mediation. However, they cannot insist on this if you are at risk of violence or abuse at home.
If you and your parent/guardians do agree to mediation, the council should still agree to house you until the mediation is being arranged and the situation has been sorted out.
What are the advantages of being housed by social services?
It may be in your best interests to get help from social services rather than the housing department, especially if you are about to turn 18. This is because:
- if you ask social services for help, they have to do a full assessment of all of your needs – the housing department can only offer you accommodation, whereas social services can also offer financial assistance, help with training and employment, and support with drug, alcohol or mental health problems
- if you are housed by social services it may mean that you will become entitled to ongoing help until you turn 21 (or 24 if you are still in full-time education)
- social services cannot make decisions about how they should help you based on the reasons why you are homeless. The housing department, on the other hand, may decide that you are only entitled to limited help because you are intentionally homeless – for example if you got thrown out because of your behaviour.
Get emergency help if you're already homeless
If you have nowhere to stay, either social services or the council's housing department should provide emergency accommodation for you while they assess your needs. The department you approached first will normally be the one that should house you.
If neither department takes responsibility for housing you while the assessment is carried out, get advice immediately. Use our directory to find agencies in your area who can help you.
Making a complaint to the council
You may not be offered the kind of accommodation or services you need. You can make a complaint if:
- the accommodation and services you are offered are not suitable
- social services refuses to look into your situation to check whether you are entitled to help.
Every council has a complaints procedure and there are also legal rules about how complaints should be dealt with. Get advice before making a complaint, as the complaints procedure can be complicated. Use our directory to find agencies in your area who can help you make sure that your complaint is effective.