Mediation provides a perfect solution for turning family conflict around and avoiding the devastating effects of a young person becoming homeless. Here, I discuss the link between conflict and homelessness, how and why mediation is provided in this area, and how to maximise the opportunities that mediation can offer.
The challenge of homelessness
The physical and mental well-being of any young person is crucially dependent on their having a stable, safe, and ideally loving, home environment. Fortunately for many young people, this is exactly what they have.
The family setting, however, can sometimes be far from ideal for either the young person and/or their parents or carers. Conflict can develop within the family, and this can lead to the young person either choosing, or being asked, to leave the family home. Unless they have a suitable alternative arrangement, in many situations this can result in the young person becoming homeless.
It is known that well over half of people accepted as homeless by local authorities in England became homeless because of relationship breakdown or having been asked to leave their accommodation by family or friends1, and this close link between conflict and homelessness points to an important area of application for mediation.
How does conflict lead to homelessness for young people?
Our own experience over the last eighteen years tells us that the following factors are the most likely to cause a young person to leave their family home:
- Conflict or even abuse between the parents/carers is a significant factor in the young person leaving home. They just want to get away from it. The fact that there are an estimated 130,000 children and young people living with high risk of domestic abuse2 would suggest that this is a significant cause of homelessness for young people.
- The young person’s desire for independence, and sometimes their need just to get noticed by the parents/carers, means that they can often push boundaries. The parents/carers may feel the need to tighten those boundaries or to apply more sanctions when rules are broken, and the consequent damage to the relationship can often lead to the young person either walking away or being ejected.
- In some families, the parents/carers don’t know, or sometimes don’t care, what the young person is doing. This may simply be an aspect of the parents’/carers’ lifestyle choices, it may be attributable to deficits in their own parenting history, or it could be due to mental health issues. And the mental health of the young person will clearly be impacted by such circumstances: Centrepoint, the UK agency for housing & support for young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, reports that a quarter of young people who go to them for help have mental health problems, with around half of these suffering from depression3.
Where does mediation come in?
Government policy in the UK now recognises the important role for mediation in mending family relationships before their breakdown leads to homelessness for a young person4.
Like other forms of mediation, the crucial aspects of mediation for family relationships are that it is that it is voluntary, confidential, and impartially provided. The aim is for the family members to come up with their own workable and future-focused solutions for how the young person will integrate better within the family home, or alternatively how they will leave with dignity and move to an alternative setting where they can be safe, secure and supported.
And in terms of who provides it, there is a wide variation across the country.
- We have trained and qualified many Family Relationships Mediators for Nightstop, the organisation dedicated to providing homeless young persons aged 16 to 25 with a free and safe place to stay in the home of a volunteer.
- We have also trained and qualified workers within charities and other third sector organisations, including DePaul UK, St. Basil’s, Barnardo’s, and many others. These organisations often try to mediate at an early stage to ensure that a difficult family situation does not lead to a young person ending up on the streets.
- And the other main group of our mediation trainees has been Family Group Conferencing Practitioners. Usually employed by local authorities, these practitioners convene and run whole-family meetings: mediating discussions around the welfare and living arrangements of a young person who is either at risk of homelessness or who is about to go into care.
Why does it work?
We know generally why mediation works, and the success of mediation for family relationships is similar to that of mediation in other areas. Specifically:
- Both sides to the conflict get to hear how their own words and behaviours have impacted, and perhaps continue to impact) on the other. Plus, everyone is encouraged to acknowledge and to respond to what others have got to say. If this builds even the slightest amount of empathy, then people might consequently choose to change what they say and do as a step on the way to improving their relationship.
- Both sides get a chance to explain their motivations to the other. The parents/carers can let the young person know why, for example, they feel the need to enforce rules or to expect some whole-family time; the young person can explain why they really need to get time outside the home with friends and peers, or why they get frustrated and angry when the parents come over as ‘bossy’ or controlling.
- People get a chance to say things that might otherwise go unsaid. The atmosphere of a properly managed mediation session allows people the time and setting to get their point fully across without interruption or rebuke, and while the boundaries of mediation do permit the venting of strong emotion, they do not allow persecution and personal attack. The mediation meeting(s) might be the first time that a family has had an orderly and constructive exchange of this sort.
- Ultimately, the family can move away from the sense of a zero-sum, competitive stand-off, and into the realm of a solution reached through collaboration and the pooling of ideas. The ‘third way’ emerges: the future-focussed plan that neither the young person nor the parents/carers could have arrived at alone.
How to maximise the opportunities offered by mediation: some tips
UK Mediation is a centre of excellence for mediation in this particular area, and we are frequently asked to advise and consult with private and statutory agencies on how to make the most of mediation.
So, based on having worked with some hundreds of practitioners over the years, in terms of some take-away tips for anyone working in this field, what we would say is:
- Offer mediation early on when conflict starts to develop within the family. Don’t leave it until communication has completely broken down, when it can be too late.
- Ensure the mediation process is truly voluntary and is seen to be voluntary. Nothing will raise people’s resistance more than a sense of being made to participate against their will
- As the practitioner-mediator, stay impartial. Avoid arbitrating or directing, and allow the family members to come up with their own ideas and solutions: this will be the lasting solution, and if the participants feel that they own it, they will try and make it work.
And finally, as an organisation committed to the greater use of mediation, we see every day that conflict, including intra-family conflict, cannot be prevented but it can be managed better. Mediation provides a way for the whole family to turn that conflict around: to jointly decide whether the young person stays in the family home, or whether he or she leaves in a safer and more supported way. It empowers family members, leads to lasting solutions, and ultimately minimises the harm that conflict within the family might otherwise cause.
Dr Mike Talbot is the founder and CEO of UK Mediation.
Read more about Mike
1 Shelter (2007) Homelessness Prevention and Mediation. London: Shelter
2 CAADA (2012) A place of greater safety
3 Centrepoint (2016) Families Under Pressure: Preventing family breakdown and youth homelessness. London: Centrepoint
4 Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) (2006) Homelessness prevention: a guide to good practice London: DCLG