Lime Legal

Babes up in arms

Published 12 January 2024

New research sheds light on the plight of homeless teenage mums and their strong desire to create an independent life for themselves and their children. Joanne Newton reports

Homelessness and teenage motherhood are incomprehensible and unacceptable in today’s affluent Britain. Yet the two are often combined. Social exclusion and poor health for mother and baby are among the consequences that make this a major public health issue.

Current government policy is aimed at the causes of teenage pregnancy and homelessness – but little is known about how young mothers become homeless and what they actually feel about it.

In England and Wales, an estimated 18,000 teenage mothers do not live with their families – 7,000 of them 16- and 17-year-olds. In the area of our study, 46 babies were born to women younger than 18 in 2014, and 61 in 2015.

In the same area, nine women younger than 18 were registered as homeless in 2014 and seven in 2015. However, practitioners working to support teenage parents reported that a quarter of their case load of 200 teenage mothers aged 16 to 18 – 50 young mothers – are living in insecure or inadequate accommodation, hostel accommodation or have frequent moves.

Whereas teenage conception data is collected annually by all local authorities, and a national target to reduce conceptions has been set, no such data exists for the number of teenage mothers in local authority areas, therefore there is no national data on how many lone teenage parents there are, or how many cannot live with their family.

The World Health Organisation defines homelessness as embracing rooflessness, houselessness, living in insecure accommodation or living in adequate accommodation. This study adopts the WHO definition and focuses on teenage mothers who are not able to live in the family home, with a partner or in a permanent residence of their own. It uses biographical methods to investigate the journey to and experience of homelessness. Ten teenage mothers over the age of 16 were interviewed.


For five of the young women pregnancy resulted from homelessness and occurred when they were living in hostel accommodation. For the other five, it was the other way round – homelessness was the result of pregnancy, either because of family rows and the breakdown of relationships
or overcrowding.

Overcrowding was the catalyst for homelessness for at least three of the young women. All three had been living in a two-bedroom flat with their mother, her new partner, plus siblings. Overcrowding was then exacerbated when the young woman gave birth while at home.

Analysis of the results revealed three main reasons for the young mother’s homelessness. These were disruption, exclusion and support.

From birth to the age of 14, the young mothers experienced major disruption, particularly within family relationships. This includes being put into foster care, the divorce of parents, moving between parents, and parents themselves forming new relationships. A feature of this disruption is geographical moves and moves between schools, often resulting in bullying.

AB was in care. She says: ‘I’ve lived everywhere and with I don’t know how many different people. I’ve been in and out of care since I was about two… I went from foster home to foster home, from family to family.’

GH details her moves: ‘I lived with my mum in a flat till I was three, then moved in with my dad. My dad got custody of me then, and I moved to G with my dad. Then my dad met his wife he’s married to now in Ireland and I lived there for three years. I moved back here when I was 14 (laughs). I moved back in when I was 14 and me and my mum had a big disagreement and argument and then I moved out when I was 15.’

Disruption from frequent moves continued after becoming homeless and pregnant. One young woman had lived with her parents, her grandmother and in all five hostels in the city before securing her own tenancy. She became pregnant while in her third hostel. Others had lived in lodgings and several privately rented flats. One had moved back and forth between hostels and her mother’s home following the birth of her baby.

Not surprisingly, a desire for stability was an important theme, including the desire for settled accommodation, as well as for a good, stable, safe home for the baby. Young women were realistic about how difficult this would be and knew they would be reliant on housing benefit and that it would take a long time to achieve stable accommodation.

These young women experienced exclusion in several ways: lack of family support and stability, or of supportive schooling, and little sense of social status and identity.

The young women used unambiguous language about relationships – including family relationships – and feelings of rejection, such as ‘left me’, and ‘kicked me out’ when referring to mothers, fathers and partners. They felt excluded from relationships as well as family life.

For one young woman this started when she was put into care at the age of two, and told she couldn’t live at home again. Five young women were also excluded from school. BC describes being ‘kicked out of every school I went to’.

Many reported negative experiences of school and three were bullied. HA: ‘I was bullied a lot at school. They just started being leery to me and being nasty, picking on me. So I used to self-harm. And that got to a stage where I had to be rushed into hospital.’

Some young women seemed to lack any positive affirmation and had a negative self-identity, referring to themselves as ‘naughty’ and ‘bad’. This was enacted by arguing and fighting with their mothers, taking drugs and crime. Many had negative self-beliefs demonstrated by self-harming and for one young woman, a suicide attempt.

They also expressed a feeling of being judged as unimportant. This was particularly evident when the young women talked about ‘the council’, usually referred to as ‘they’:

GH: ‘They obviously think typical 17 year old, pregnant again. Because that’s the way they look at you. The way they speak to me isn’t pleasant. It would be nice if the council even interviewed young mums, but it’s not like that… They don’t pay attention to us. Just because we’re young, doesn’t mean we’re stupid, or that we don’t know how to take care of ourselves and our babies.’

The third theme was the desire for support alongside the need for independence. The tension between the two was evident throughout the journey to homelessness and while living in temporary accommodation.

The aim of hostels is to offer support to teenage mothers who cannot live with their families. However, this was often viewed by young women seeking independence as intrusive and controlling rather than supportive. CD: ‘I’m doing it my way, instead of doing it the hostels’ way… They’re not our mums. We’re living on our own, trying to get away from it all.’

Teenage mothers who had experienced homelessness were often multiply disadvantaged, but they were doing their best to care for their baby and often demonstrated positive attributes of adaptability, determination, resilience, optimism, ambition and humour. However, these assets are often overlooked in service provision.

Out of school

Strategies for supporting teenage mothers focus on end goals, such as ensuring teenage parents are participating in education, training or employment. The pregnancy is seen as a problem to be tackled, suggesting a long-term welfare dependency.

Yet these young mothers, in common with the majority of pregnant teenagers of statutory school age, had already disengaged from education before they became pregnant and many reported negative attitudes from mainstream schools. For these young mothers, their key priority is housing, without which employment or the option of a delayed start/return to work is unlikely.

This study shows how rising rates of divorce, cohabitation and reconstituted families impact on the level of family support young people can expect. For many, overcrowding and strained relationships prompted early leaving from home and their consequent desire for stability leading to early motherhood. For others who became pregnant whilst living at home, the presumption of support from a reconstituted family was simply not there.

Government policies seeking to change the balance of responsibility for young people from the state and towards the family would, on the basis of this study, be based on false assumptions of the level of support young people can expect from their families. This has important implications for teenage mothers, in terms of both accommodation and financial support, and practical and emotional support.

Parental unwillingness to provide support to teenage mothers coupled with restrictions on access to supported and independent housing and limitations on state income can precipitate homelessness and make it difficult for young people to achieve the safe autonomy they desire as new mothers. Paradoxically this is exactly the situation the Supporting Families programme was designed to address.