By Nicola Aylward
For many years, young adult carers were a ‘hidden’ group. Providing unpaid care for their families, young people with caring responsibilities faced a wide range of challenges that limited their life chances. Alongside this, their needs were often unseen and overlooked, which compounded the difficulties and isolation they faced.
During the last five to ten years this has slowly changed. There is now a much greater public awareness of young adult carers’ needs, and support for this group has risen up the policy agenda. In the 2018 Carers Action Plan, there was a recognition from the Government that young adult carers have the right to a ‘life of their own outside caring’. However, the coronavirus pandemic has made this a much harder reality for the hundreds of thousands of young people with caring responsibilities across the UK.
The pressure and isolation that young adult carers face has been elevated to another level since the outbreak of the crisis. Whilst it’s challenging and uncertain times for all of us, the health, social and economic impact of coronavirus on young adult carers is acute, complex and is likely to widen the inequalities they face.
One key area of young adult carers’ lives that continues to be overlooked in policy and support is housing. This week Learning and Work Institute (L&W) is publishing the final report of its three-year evaluation of Move On Up. Delivered by Quaker Social Action, with the support of Commonweal Housing, Move On Up is a shared housing and support pilot project targeted at young adult carers, based in London. Testimonies provided by Move On Up participants, and our wider research, shows that many young adult carers are living in precarious and insecure housing. Overcrowding and inappropriate living conditions are common. Alongside this the pressures of caring can create tensions that often lead to breakdown in family relationships and can result in young adult carers becoming homeless.
The only project of its kind in the UK, our evaluation has shown that, for the 21 young people who have participated, Move On Up is having a positive impact in a range of ways. The evidence shows that young adult carers benefit from respite from caring, improved relationships with family members, higher levels of participation/outcomes in learning and employment, improved social engagement, and improved confidence, communication skills and wider life skills.
The project is also relatively successful in terms of move-on destinations and outcomes, with two-thirds of participants who have left the project reporting a more positive situation compared to when they initially engaged.
Last week I spoke to Melissa, a young woman who cares for her mum with multiple sclerosis. When the country went into lockdown in March, Melissa became her mum’s full-time carer, alongside taking on responsibility for home schooling her younger sister. Prior to lockdown Melissa went to college four days a week to study health and social care, she also had a part time job in a local fast food restaurant. College and work provided Melissa with much-needed respite from caring, alongside extra money to boost the family’s income from benefits. Melissa hasn’t worked since the end of March, which alongside rising food costs, means finances are very tight. Melissa continues to study from home, but it’s hard to find the time or motivation to focus on her own studies. Melisa reassures her sister that their mum will be fine, but deep down she’s anxious that she will become very ill.
Melissa is not unique. There are hundreds of thousands of young adult carers, across the UK, who are main carers in lockdown. The day to day pressure these young people face has become compounded by social distancing requirements and lack of access to the services that support them and the people they care for. This was really brought home to me recently when I was contacted by a volunteer carers support worker in Leicester who had read about our evaluation of Move On Up and wanted to know if he could refer a young man that he supports. Manvir cares for his mum and his grandad and has three younger siblings. The family lives in a three-bedroom flat in the city. The situation at home has become very difficult since lockdown was imposed and Manvir’s support worker is trying to secure emergency accommodation before he is made homeless. Manvir and his grandfather have a tense relationship, and Manvir is often angry and frustrated. As a result of taking on increasing levels of responsibility at home, Manvir feels that he has no life of his own. Lockdown has made Manvir feel ‘trapped’ and unable to cope.
Manvir’s story highlights the need for projects such as Move On Up, across the UK. Our evaluation shows that the unique combination of shared housing with other young adult carers, alongside specialist and empathetic support, can provide the crucial pathway to independence that many young adult carers need and deserve.
We estimate that young adult carers provide over £5 billion in unpaid care each year. In times of crisis, their basic housing needs should be met, and they should be given opportunities to carve out a ‘life of their own’. We set out a series of recommendations in the report.
First and foremost we are urging the Department of Health and Social Care to review the current Carers’ Action Plan to ensure that young adult carers housing needs are addressed. In housing policy, we urge government to restore local housing allowance rates to at least the bottom third of local rental market levels. At the time of writing, this has been implemented in response to the coronavirus crisis. This is long overdue and should be permanently maintained to ensure that basic housing is affordable for young adult carers. It’s time that this group of young people, who contribute so much, are given the support they deserve. The current crisis reinforces the importance of the Government’s own levelling up agenda. We need action, at a range of levels, to make this a reality for young adult carers.
Nicola Aylward, Head of Learning for Young People, Learning and Work Institute