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National Homeless Advice Service

Handling initial enquiries and making referrals

If a youth services hub or co-location model is not in place, it is critically important that the initial response to a young person in crisis is to deal with their enquiry in an immediate and authoritative way.

This needs to happen at the same place where the young person has made their request, rather than immediately directing them elsewhere.

Handling initial enquiries

It is vital that the first point of contact with a young person who is already homeless - or may soon become homeless - can:

  • discover the basic facts about the young person’s circumstances and, with their consent, contact their family
  • organise all available resources to prevent homelessness
  • give reliable advice about the next steps if the young person cannot return home - this includes statutory duties, assessment of their needs, contacts with their family, and immediate accommodation and support if they have nowhere safe to stay
  • initiate a prompt assessment of whether a statutory duty is owed to the young person, should they face actual or imminent homelessness - see below for details of how this should be done

For practical reasons, this is much more easily achieved where the ‘youth services hub’ or co-location models are used. See our page on models for joint working.

Where dispersed arrangements are in place, it is essential to have robust joint protocols, to carry out regular reviews of working practices and to keep a close eye on processes and young people’s outcomes. Many authorities achieve this by designating particular officers to lead on youth issues within their team, so that good communication can be maintained between units that are geographically and operationally separate.

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First contact and initial assessment

As soon as the agency the young person have sought help from has established that the young person is indeed homeless and aged 16 or 17, they should then be able to make a referral for an initial assessment to be carried out by Children’s Services.

The assessment will determine if the young person is a ‘child in need’, as set out in Section 17 of the Children Act 1989. It is very likely that this will be the case if the young person says they need accommodation because they are homeless. This is set out in Section 20 (1) (a-c) of the Act, and there are very few exceptions.

It is important that the agency is able to tell the young person what will happen next with a high degree of confidence. This is essential if trust is to be maintained.

Where the young person’s initial contact is with a team or agency other than Children’s Services, it is even more important that effective joint working arrangements are in place. This is a particular issue if a joined-up model is not being used or where there is no youth hub - in two-tier authorities, for example. Hallmarks of effective working include clearly-understood procedures, shared understanding and confidence in each others’ roles, and the commitment of all parties to making it work.

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Making referrals

There must be clear procedures for moving referrals quickly through to the children’s services team, where the assessment of the young person’s situation will be made.

Some local authorities operate a county-wide call centre, which handles all forms of referral for social services assistance. The role, function and expertise of such teams vary considerably from authority to authority. The most effective arrangements provide for:

  • call centre staff being trained in the basics of legislation and the joint protocol, so they do not block referrals of homeless 16 and 17 year-olds
  • referring agencies knowing what information has to be provided on the referral form
  • the call centre being able to find out if the young person or their family is already known to social services.

It may be helpful for the call centre to speak directly to the young person at this point, to get any further information needed. The referral should then be logged and passed to the Children’s Services referral team for an initial assessment.

If a young person is in immediate crisis - or potentially at risk - the agency making the referral can contact Children’s Services and the team responsible for assessment/safeguarding to alert them to a referral coming their way. The referrer should also nominate an individual with whom the Children’s Services team can share information while the assessment is carried out.

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Preventative activity - making it clear and robust

When a young person first presents themselves as homeless, the preventative and information-gathering measures taken by each agency need to be consistent, as far as is reasonable within each agency’s powers, and clear to all parties.

If it is clear that the young person is homeless, prevention work can (and should) continue throughout the statutory assessment phase. It should focus on the young person returning to their home or to that of a member of their extended family, as long as it is safe and possible to do so.

Preventative work might include home visits and information on housing options, and offers of support within the family home or that of extended family or friends. Examples of the latter could include floating support, informal mediation or negotiation, or referral for family support or mediation.

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