Independent living in private gardens – an idea to reduce the risk of youth homelessness

By Dr Jon Symonds and Dr Vicky Sharley

Some young people could avoid becoming homeless if they had the opportunity to reside in an independent living unit situated in their household garden. This was the finding of a recent study by members of the Children and Families Research Centre, working in partnership with the youth homelessness organisation 1625 Independent People.

Youth homelessness is a pressing problem in the UK and the impact on young people can be severe in terms of loneliness, isolation, lack of readiness for moving out and risks to their mental health, poverty and risk of exploitation from others.

If the units were successful, young people could have their own place to live separately from their parent(s), carer(s) or siblings where they could develop their independent living skills, whilst still being able to access care and support from members of their household to prevent feelings of isolation.

The potential benefits of the units

The idea for the study came from an Australian project, Kids Under Cover, which had successfully installed standalone units in privately owned outdoor yard spaces as a way to support families where the young person was at risk of becoming homeless. Units contained a bedroom, living area, electricity and a microwave.

Young people who took part in the study in England liked the idea and felt that it could offer a place of their own outside of a household where there might be overcrowding, or difficult relationships with parents, carers or siblings. It could provide a sense of freedom that they might not have at home, but also help them build responsibility for looking after their space and learning to be independent. If they were provided at the right time, it could help provide the space a young person needs to enable them to repair their relationships with family members, before they break down completely. If the units had a shower room, kitchen facilities and internet access, these were viewed as essential aspects to make the idea work.

Foster carers who took part in the study also saw benefits in the idea. They viewed the idea positively as a way to support young people to make the first step to moving on to their own flat and potentially useful for Staying Put arrangements which facilitate young people in care to maintain a close relationship with their foster carers after they have reached 18.

The design of the units would be an important factor as there is generally much more land available in Australia where the project was originally developed. Here in the UK, some households would be living in urban areas with small gardens and a range of design professionals who participated in the study talked of the innovative design solutions that could be used to fit units into small gardens. There were also questions raised about how long the units would be located for and whether this would be long enough to offset any potential disruption to installing plumbing and electricity in gardens that might have had a lot of work. Considerations would also need to be made for the legal status of the arrangements and whether separate planning permissions would be required, or separate tenancy agreements need to be made.

The importance of support

Although the people we spoke to were very positive about the idea in principle, most people agreed that it should only be considered an option for some young people where they were likely to be able to manage being separate in their own space, and in circumstances where the relationships within the household were strained but not entirely broken. The units were not intended to be used in situations in high conflict or abuse and participants echoed the risks of allowing a potentially abusive situation to continue.

It would also be important to ensure that young people were properly supported in the units and not just left to get on with it. People we spoke to told us about the importance of having support from qualified staff who could help young people with managing housing issues, learning skills of cooking, laundry, college and money, and supporting people with their own wellbeing and mental health. If the idea of the units is to be taken forwards, then plans for these should include provision for personal support as well.


About the study

Jon and Vicky conducted the study in the Southwest of England and collected participants’ views through a series of focus groups. 31 people took part in eight focus groups for young people, practitioners who worked with young people, foster carers, managers of agencies who supported children and young people, and design and construction consultants. The focus groups were held during the Covid pandemic and were conducted online, using Microsoft Teams. An online questionnaire for strategic managers was also developed which was completed by seven people.

About the authors and acknowledgements

This blog was written by Dr Jon Symonds and Dr Vicky Sharley, who worked in partnership with Jamie Gill from 1625 Independent People. The study was funded by Commonweal Housing.

Photo by Iza Gawrych on Unsplash.


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