Susan Hutson and Mark Liddiard

Youth homelessness hit the headlines in 1989. Over the next few years it was a popular subject in the broadsheet and tabloid press. Images of young people sleeping rough on the streets of London were common, particularly in the Sunday press. Youth homelessness featured in women's magazines and the subject matter lent itself to a number of television drama documentaries. This chapter traces the media career of youth homelessness—the way it entered the headlines and, later, how the reporting changed. However, before looking in more detail at this, the question needs to be answered: why, in a book about environmental risk, is an analysis of youth homelessness relevant? The main answer is that an analysis of social issues and the media has much to tell us about environmental issues and the media. The boundaries between 'social' and the 'natural' environments are porous. For example, it is obvious that political decisions over the distribution of economic and social resources are intricately connected with political decisions over natural resources. Broadly, what a society does with its people is likely to reflect what it does with its natural environment. Policies, be they environmental, economic or welfare, can produce a fall out. In youth homelessness this resulting 'pollution' is essentially social or human.

Central to this chapter is the idea that environmental and social issues are both identified and socially constructed in a public arena, the precise processes of which we will look at in relation to youth homelessness. Beck (1992a, 1997b), in his analysis of 'risk society' and 'reflexive modernisation', makes many references to the way in which 'risks' are introduced and defined within the public arenas of the media by contesting groups. While Beck was talking primarily about environmental 'risks', his analysis is relevant to broader social 'risks'. For example, many of the environmental 'risks' identified in later modernity are invisible and their consequences lie in the future. This gives them the status of 'virtual reality'. Youth homelessness is also largely invisible, as are the social and economic factors which cause it. For this reason it is, like many other social issues (Hilgartner and Bosk 1988; Cottle 1993a), very much open to social construction. However, to say that youth homelessness is socially constructed (Hutson and Liddiard 1994) is not to imply that it is an illusion any more than studies around the social construction of death (Sudnow 1967) deny its reality.

The process of social construction is dynamic and this chapter focuses on the 'media career' of youth homelessness. In tracing this process, we shall show, on the one hand, why youth homelessness was so attractive to the media and, on the other, how these media images shaped the public conception of the problem. We suggest that the particular configuration of youth homelessness and the press was influenced by the dominance of the voluntary agencies. Such an analysis, of the intersection between a social issue and the media, is equally relevant to many environmental issues.

Youth homelessness first became widely reported in the British news media in 1989. In 1998, the Labour government appointed a 'homelessness tsar', demonstrating that it regards homelessness as a serious social problem. Youth homelessness can be seen as the fallout from global change—recession and then economic restructuring which left little employment for young school leavers— coupled with broad monetarist politics which exacerbated unemployment and led to cuts in welfare benefits. Benefit cuts were targeted on under-25s and triggered an increase in the numbers of homeless young people after 1988 (Hutson and Liddiard 1994). These cuts were fuelled by fears that a generation was leaving home to live on benefit (Brynin 1987). One aim of the cuts was to push young people back into their parental homes. Through the 1990s, youth homelessness grew despite the fact that the voluntary sector set up housing and support projects and the duties of social services towards care-leavers after the Children Act (implemented 1991) were increased. Despite the current Labour government's rhetoric of 'social exclusion' and the 'New Deal', single young people are generally still not housed and therefore youth homelessness continues to be a pressing social issue (A.Evans 1996).

The 'media career' of youth homelessness shows a different pattern of progression. In 1988, a report was published about homeless young people staying at the Centrepoint hostel in London (Randall 1988). The public interest and the media response to this report surprised the involved agencies, who then realised that youth homelessness had considerable potential for publicity (personal communication from R.Strathdee). Youth homelessness stayed in the headlines and the issue was regularly raised in parliament. The homeless young person sleeping under the arches of Charing Cross railway station became 'the symbolic image of the modern British adolescent' (Observer 26 March 1989). Media coverage peaked in the summer of 1990 and this publicity worried the government. The Bullring in London, where many were sleeping rough, was cleared and a £15 million package for the voluntary agencies called the 'Rough Sleeper's Initiative' was announced. Both moves were undoubtedly designed to take youth homelessness out of the headlines and, in this, they were successful. Media coverage declined and changed, but familiar images of youth homelessness still appear at Christmas and in media-led charity events such as Children in Need.

Continue reading here: Mediagenic issues

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