Homelessness (16/17 year olds)

This page explains the duties of the local authority to provide accommodation to homeless young people aged 16 or 17.

What does homelessness mean in law?

A person does not have to be living on the streets to be considered homeless. When a child or young person’s home is unsuitable or they do not have the legal right to remain where they live, they are considered homeless. Furthermore, they may be living in a dangerous or overcrowded environment and thus be considered homeless.

What are the duties of Children’s Services to accommodate children and young persons aged 16 or 17?

When a 16 or 17-year-old seeks assistance from local authority children’s services or is referred to them by another person or agency as appearing to be homeless or threatened with homelessness, children’s services must assess what duties, if any, are owed to them. This applies to all young people, including 17-year-olds approaching their 18th birthday and young people who are pregnant or have children in their care. When the duty in Section 20 of the 1989 Act is triggered, the local authority is required to accommodate the child.

In the landmark case R (G) v The London Borough of Southwark [2009], the law surrounding the local authority’s duty to accommodate a child in need was clarified. The following are the questions to consider in any given case:

1. Is the person a child?

A ‘child’ is defined in the Children Act of 1989 as any person under the age of 18.

2. Is the child in need?

A child shall be taken to be in need if:

  1. he is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for him of services by a local authority under this Part;
  2. (his health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision for him of such services; or
  3. he is disabled.

"It cannot seriously be suggested that a child excluded from home who is ‘sofa-surfing’ in this way, more often sleeping in cars, snatching showers and washing his clothes when he can, is not in need." (Baroness Hale)

3. Is he/she within the Local Authority’s area?

This test does not require habitual residence, but the child or young person should have a physical presence in that local authority area. A local authority may refer a child or young person to another local authority where they are more commonly residing, but the child or young person must not be passed between local authorities indefinitely while they decide where they came from. A child can be in the jurisdiction of two local authorities at the same time, for example, if they live in one and go to school in another.

4. Does the child appear to the Local Authority to require accommodation?

When a child or young person is homeless or couch surfing, it is obvious that they require housing. Section 20 may not apply where they can stay with family or friends but need assistance settling in or the placement must be made safe or habitable.

5. Is that need the result of any of the criteria within section 20(1) Children Act 1989?

A Local Authority will have a duty to accommodate under the Children Act if:

  • no one has Parental Responsibility for the child;
  • the child is lost or abandoned;
  • the person who has been caring for the child is unable to provide suitable care and accommodation; or
  • the child is 16 or 17 years old and the Local Authority considers the child’s welfare would be seriously threatened if it does not provide accommodation.

These rules also apply to asylum seekers.

A child or young person refusing to live with parents is not enough to justify homelessness on its own, but incompatibility and a breakdown in the relationship between parent and child or young person may be enough.

6. What are the wishes and feelings of the child or young person in respect of accommodation?

When deciding whether a child can stay at home, their wishes and feelings will be considered.

7. What consideration (having regard to the child’s age and understanding) is duly to be given to those wishes?

8. Does any person with parental responsibility who is willing to provide accommodation for the child object to the local authority’s intervention?

9. If there is an objection, does the person named in a child arrangements order as a person with whom the child is to live agree to the child being looked after by the local authority?

What are the duties of the local authority housing department to provide accommodation to a child or young person aged 16 or 17?

Under the Housing Act 1996, local authority housing departments have a duty to prevent homelessness and provide free advice and assistance to those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless within 28 days. It defines ‘priority need’ groups, one of which is ‘children,’ whose needs must be assessed.

In the case of 16 or 17-year-olds in need of housing, case law has clarified the relationship between the duty under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 and the duty under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996. In R (G) v Southwark [2009] UKHL 26, the House of Lords ruled that where a 16 or 17-year-old is owed duties under section 20 of the 1989 Act, these take precedence over the duties under the 1996 Act in providing for children in need who require accommodation. When a specific duty is owed under section 20 of the 1989 Act, a 16 or 17-year-old should be accommodated under that provision rather than the general duty owed to children in need and their families under section 17 of the 1989 Act.

There are generally only two situations in which a local authority may determine that a homeless young person should not be accommodated under Section 20, and instead may be owed duties under the Housing Act 1996. These are where the the young person is:

  1. not a child in need;  
  2. a 16 or 17-year-old child in need who, after being properly and fully informed of the implications and having the capacity to make a decision, has decided not to be accommodated under Section 20.

If I am faced with homelessness, should I seek support from Children’s Services or the Local Authority housing department?

S.20 Children Act 1989 Housing Act 1996 and/or
S.17 Children Act 1989

Young person will be appointed a social worker who will assess their needs on an ongoing basis and develop a care plan.

Young person is not eligible to be appointed a social worker/personal adviser and there is no requirement for there to be a care plan. 

The Care Plan will say what the council and other agencies will do to meet the child’s needs including health, education, identity and family relationships. 

The care plan will be reviewed regularly in a meeting that brings together those people who are closely concerned with the care of the young person. 

Young person is responsible for claiming benefits and paying for their accommodation and all other expenses.

The young person’s accommodation is paid for by Children’s Services up to the age of 18.

Young person has no special allowances for birthdays or other occasions.

Once aged 16 years and accommodated for 13 weeks by the local authority, the young person will also be appointed a personal adviser. At this point a needs assessment will be completed and a pathway plan will be drafted to detail the young person’s transition to adulthood. 

Young person has no entitlement to advocacy support.

Young person can get an advocate for any complaints and representation.

If the placement breaks down and the young person is evicted they might be viewed as intentionally homeless and they would no longer be eligible for accommodation.

When the young person leaves care at 18 they are a priority for housing support and may continue to receive support until the age of 25 (although this can stop at 21 if the young person chooses). 

Once the young person is 18 they are not considered a priority group for housing purposes.

What can I do if the Local Authority decides not to provide accommodation and I am unhappy with their decision?

If children’s services decides that the child or young person should be accommodated under section 20, the local authority is required to provide that accommodation.

If you believe that the local authority has not properly assessed your case, you or an advocate may lodge a complaint. Find your local advocacy service using this link. Please see our How-to Guide on Complaints against Children’s Services and our information page on Advocacy.

A young person may wish to hire a solicitor to investigate the case on their behalf. The solicitor would be able to gather the facts necessary to determine whether the local authority is required to accommodate under Section 20. Contact Civil Legal Advice on 0345 345 4345 to see if you qualify for legal aid.

Alternatively, the child or young person could file a Judicial Review application to challenge the local authority’s decision. Judicial Review is the process by which the High Court evaluates a public body’s decision. If the child or young person is considering this route, it is strongly advised to consult with a solicitor, as this area of law can be particularly complex.

What is considered suitable accommodation? 

Placement by children’s services

The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations: Volume 2: care planning, placement and case review provides guidance on the placement of looked after children, and will therefore apply to young people who are accommodated under section 20 of the 1989 Act for a continuous period of more than 24 hours.

In accordance with section 22C(7) to (9), the responsible authority must ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, the placement:

  • allows the child to live near his/her home;
  • does not disrupt his/her education (particularly at Key Stage 4);
  • enables the child and his/her sibling to live together, if the child has a sibling who is also looked after by the local authority;
  • provides accommodation which is suitable to the child’s needs if the child is disabled; and
  • is within the local authority’s area.

The placement planning process should include an exchange of appropriate information that was collected as part of the assessment process that informed the development of the looked after young person’s care plan, so that the accommodation provider has a thorough understanding of the young person’s needs and their role in meeting those needs.

Placement by housing services

Consideration of whether accommodation is suitable requires a thorough review of all aspects of the accommodation in light of the person’s and their household’s relevant needs, requirements, and circumstances. Physical standards and safety, whether the landlord is fit and proper, location, and affordability are all factors to consider when determining suitability. For further guidance about suitability of accommodation, authorities should refer to chapter 17 of the Homelessness Code of Guidance.

General considerations

When determining suitability, both children’s and housing services should keep in mind that 16 and 17-year-olds who are homeless and estranged from their family will be especially vulnerable and in need of assistance. Bed and breakfast accommodation, including hotels and nightly let accommodation with shared facilities, is not considered suitable for any 16 or 17-year-old. 

Housing and children’s services should be aware of the risks of placing vulnerable young people in mixed-age hostel settings with people who are significantly older than them. Even in an emergency, young people should not be placed in all-ages night shelters.

Whether housing is provided by children’s or housing services, arrangements should be in place to ensure that young people have the support they need to make a successful transition to independence. This could include, for example, providing supported housing or supported lodgings where young people can stay past the age of 18 and develop the skills they will need to manage the transition to adulthood.

What happens if the Local Authority disputes the age of the young person?

The question of a child’s age is a question of fact which will be assessed by children’s services and determined in Judicial Review proceedings. It must be proved that it is more likely than not that the person is/is not under 18.

What should I do if I need accommodation in an emergency?

Children’s Services has the power to make:

  • an emergency placement for up to 24 hours, or
  • a temporary placement with a relative or friend.

Alternatively, if you are aged 16–25 and homeless, there are emergency housing schemes which might be able to arrange temporary emergency accommodation for you. 

You should also contact Shelter on 0808 800 4444

This information is correct at the time of writing, 21st October 2023. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

Professionals, organisations and institutions must obtain permission from the CCLC to print or photocopy our publications in full or in part.

On this page

This information is correct at the time of writing, 21st October 2023. The law in this area is subject to change.

Coram Children’s Legal Centre cannot be held responsible if changes to the law outdate this publication. Individuals may print or photocopy information in CCLC publications for their personal use.

Professionals, organisations and institutions must obtain permission from the CCLC to print or photocopy our publications in full or in part.

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