LONG READ: Notions of Safety: Observing Cultural Perspectives in a Homeless Youth Hostel

LONG READ: Notions of Safety: Observing Cultural Perspectives in a Homeless Youth Hostel

Homeless young people are sometimes provided with accommodation which possesses a specific youth culture that some are unaccustomed to. The following long read by Matthew Howell – a PhD candidate in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University – uses data taken from participatory observations to underline some of the perceived dangers that young people perceive whilst living a homeless youth hostel in Wales.

Social situations that are deemed as perfectly safe by adults can sometimes be terrifying for young people.






The UK legally classes those who are aged 16 and 17 as children; they are therefore deemed as ‘priority need’ when they become homeless. Housing is a devolved area in Wales, and the Welsh Government has adopted the ethos of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989) when creating policy for children and young people. The UNCRC recognises that young people should be provided with safe and suitable accommodation. This promise has been made by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales (2019) who says that young people “should be looked after and kept safe”. However, it must be acknowledged that young people’s perceptions of safety differ from adults. Therefore, when one considers what types of environment young people deem to be ‘safe’, it is important to ask them for their opinion.

This blog post draws upon data taken from a 12-month ethnographic study that took place at a youth homeless hostel in South Wales, UK. The research aims to better understand life in a homeless hostel from a young person’s perspective. When discussing their ideas around suitability and safety, the young people at the hostel had mixed opinions. Only a few of the young people felt that the accommodation provided to them was both safe and suitable. One of the concerns that the young people raised was the specific culture that existed amongst the main group of young people at the hostel. Many recognised that engaging with this group could result in them experiencing peer pressure from its members. They felt that this could potentially result in them engaging in behaviours that they would not otherwise engage in.

Safety and Street Culture

The hostel’s cultural development is heavily influenced by the norms and values of the young people who reside there. Many of the young people living at the hostel spent large amounts of time on the street. Lankenau et al (2005) recognise that a ‘street culture’ exists amongst young homeless people; one that values ‘street competencies’ such as buying and selling drugs, sex work, and shoplifting. They argue that young people develop street competencies through engaging with more experienced youths; allowing delinquent cultures to form. Baron (2011) argues that when delinquent subcultures form, peers will often reward negative behaviour and punish positive behavior. These ideas have been described by Anderson (1999) as a ‘code of the street’ – an unwritten set of rules, governing people’s behaviour whilst they manoeuvre the complex terrain of the street.

In my research, it was sometimes the case that the youth hostel culture became largely influenced by this ‘street culture’. This resulted in young people being faced with two choices: (i) joining a group, which operated in line with street values, (ii) or not engaging with other young people in the hostel and avoiding them. Many of the young people described avoiding the main group as “keeping yourself to yourself”. They warned that not joining a group may result in young people becoming excluded from the social network of the hostel, or their status within the hostel being reduced. Additionally, they commented on how joining a group could offer them a level of protection both inside the hostel and out on the street. However, through engaging with the dominant group, they entered a social contract which required them to subscribe to the existing group culture, influencing their actions and shaping their behaviour, whilst they stayed at the hostel.

Voices of Young People

 First Impressions:

Rhian was sixteen when she became homeless, she recalled her first visit to the hostel before moving in:

“There was exy [NPS – New Psychoactive Substances], and there was like, blood on the beds and, cos it’s home to them types of people. And just boys, like, monged [intoxicated] off their faces and just drugs really… They were selling drugs from here, like crack and heroin, from one of the rooms. And there was prostitution here with one of the girls as well”.

She said that after witnessing this she felt afraid and she decided to “keep herself to herself” whilst living in the hostel. After a while, the main group began to target her, resulting in her getting into fights. When I asked her what happened she said that one of the girls was “threatening to glass me, and she was just threatening and screaming at me”.

Michael was also sixteen when he moved in to the hostel. He said:

“I had heard bad things like, about like the way it was here: violence, drugs … I was like “oh, I don’t know if I want to move into that”. But I was homeless at the time, so it was a roof. My logic was, I can just go in my room, I haven’t got to bother with anyone”.

After moving in, he heard people knocking on his door all the time. Michael chose to isolate himself and stayed in his room when he could. His mental health declined because he was afraid, he took drugs to help him cope.

James said that when he first moved into the hostel the staff were really welcoming. He was very positive and thought he was going to be happy, until two nights after he moved in. James said:

“Well there was the one time someone was banging on my door like. I can’t remember what time was it; really late. I had training in the morning and that shook me up a bit. I was just settled in like, I was just settled in like, and kind of like just let my guard down type of thing, and felt safe. Then there was banging on my door, shouting to open my door. And then that kind of made me feel ‘f*** I don’t want to be here anymore’”.

Finding your Feet:

When I asked Mia how she felt when she moved into the hostel she said:

 Scared, I would say I was scared. Keeping myself to myself really; that’s what I was doing”.

She said there was a group of young people who dominated the hostel. They would regularly smoke New Psychoactive Substances (NPS) and take Valium. She described them as ‘unpredictable’ and there was a lot of violence.  Mia did not like drugs, so she avoided the group; but they began to target her. She avoided going back to the hostel and spent much of her time on the streets or staying at people’s houses. She was told by staff that she needed to stay at the hostel or she could be evicted. Out of fear of losing her room, she began to stay at the hostel. Mia was befriended by one of the girls in the group. Shortly after this, she started taking drugs with the group. During an interview discussing some of her experiences at the hostel, she said that she had been taken down this path which I wish that I really didn’t go down; basically I regret f*****g everything”.

Existing Contacts and Experience of Living Alone:

Young people coming from other hostels, and those who already knew young people, found settling in a lot easier. They described the hostel as a safe place where they could receive the help and support that they needed. When I asked Becky what she thought about the hostel, she said:

Brilliant here I reckon. Cos obviously Leah lives here, and she told me it was brilliant, they helps you do everything … I’m dyslexic, and ADHD and behavioural problems. I can’t do stuff like that on my own like”.

She had just come from a much larger hostel called The Stop, which provides emergency accommodation for older residents. Becky told me that she was constantly anxious when living at The Stop.

Another young resident called Tazmin came from The Stop. She said she was happy to come to the hostel because it was a lot safer than The Stop. She told me that during her time at The Stop she had become addicted to street Valium (MSJ) and had been sexually assaulted whilst under the influence of drugs. When she first arrived at the hostel, she had stopped taking drugs. However, after she moved in, she joined the main group and relapsed on drugs.

Moving Forward

Through speaking to the young people, it was found that those with no existing contacts or previous experience of living alone, experienced life at the hostel as dangerous. This was because they viewed the existing culture at the hostel as intimidating or scary. Because of this they isolated themselves or chose not to stay at the hostel. Others saw the hostel as a safe environment and had few problems living there. They often had existing contacts at the hostel, previous experience of living alone, and were familiar with the culture of the main group. This shows that young people’s notions of safety are often different and are sometimes influenced by different cultures. Through taking an interpretivist understanding of hostel culture, one can avoid using their own culture to view/measure other cultures and being ethnocentric.

It should therefore be recognised that adult perspectives of hostels can differ from young people. Adults might view the hostel as a safe environment, one that protects the young people from the things that they themselves fear. However, many of the young people described coming to the hostel as entering a domain filled with new dangers and risks. Some which are equally weighted to the dangers and risk that exist on the street, and some which are worse.



Anderson, E. (1999). Code of the street: decency, violence, and the moral life of the inner city. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Baron, S. W. (2006). Street youth, strain theory, and crime. Journal of Criminal Justice, 34(2), 209–223. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2006.01.001

Children’s Commissioner for Wales (2019). UNCRC – Children’s Rights. Retrieved from: https://www.childcomwales.org.uk/uncrc-childrens-rights/uncrc/ [on 01st April 2019].

Geertz, C. (1993). The interpretation of cultures: selected essays. London: Fontana Press.

Lankenau, S. E., Clatts, M. C., Welle, D., Goldsamt, L. A., & Gwadz, M. V. (2005). Street careers: homelessness, drug use, and sex work among young men who have sex with men (YMSM). International Journal of Drug Policy, 16(1), 10–18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugpo.2004.07.006

Williams, R. (1976). Culture. London: Fontana.


*The names of the young people in this blog have been replaced with pseudonyms to protect their identity. Additionally, the hostel name has been excluded and the larger hostel name has been changed to maximise ensure anonymity.