For a prosperous society, there are many Australians being left behind. On any given night, there are approximately 105,000 people homeless and almost half of these are under the age of 25.
There was nothing particularly special about Tuesday, August 8, 2006. However, on that night, the night of our last census, 44,547 children and young people under the age of 25 were homeless. If we accept that as OK, knowing that each and every one of them has a story, has hopes, dreams and enormous potential, then we as a society have seriously lost our way.
April 14, 2010 is Youth Homelessness Matters Day, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of homeless young people on the 14th or any given night in April 2010 will be higher than during the good economic times of August 2006. The problem is getting worse. The situation homeless people find themselves in matters, of course it matters to them but it should matter to all of us, matter enough to do something about it. All levels of government and the community at large must do more to shut down the structural factors funnelling it, intervene early when risks surface and provide ongoing support to those in need.
When youth homelessness does break into the public consciousness it is often conceptualised in the form of sleeping on park benches and under bridges - but in reality the great majority are invisible; “couch surfing”. This is the more common form of homelessness in our communities - sleeping on the floor or a couch at a friend’s house, moving on when the relationship gets strained. While not sleeping rough, these young people also suffer from issues that flow from a lack of stable accommodation, and are themselves only an argument away from living on the streets.
Homelessness is often the result of a life being overwhelmed by structural and individual factors. Young homeless people frequently refer to individual factors relating to family conflict and substance abuse as well as structural issues such as grim local labour market conditions and exclusionary levels of housing un-affordability. Nothing happens in isolation and frequently structural and individual factors are bound together.
A significant instigator for youth homelessness is relationship breakdown. Interpersonal relationship problems such as family violence are nominated by 45 per cent of homeless young people as the primary reason for their situation.
Problems such as mental illness, relationship breakdown, substance abuse and poverty can cause homelessness and once stable accommodation is lost only deepen in severity. The lack of a safe and secure home is thus both a symptom and a cause of their problems.
The continuance, and further development, of early intervention programs and strategies is fundamental to reducing youth homelessness. It is essential that further programs be developed to assist, where appropriate, young people at risk of homelessness to remain connected with their families as well as linked in to education or employment opportunities.
The federally funded Reconnect program has been doing great work in early intervention for a number of years , but the level of funding and coverage needs to be increased. This is recognised in the Federal Government’s White Paper, The Road Home. The Road Home refers to “Turning off the Tap”, in utilising early intervention strategies including a commitment to providing additional services for up to 9,000 young people aged 12 to 18 years at risk of homelessness to remain connected with families, education, training and employment. This expansion of early intervention programs combined with preventative strategies is essential if we are to meet the ambitious targets set out in the white paper.
Most homeless young people have their first experience of homelessness while they are still at school. This is partly why schools have been identified as strategic sites for early intervention. They provide opportunities to keep young people connected to the community, maintain well being, and build resilience. Ideally this should be done by a dedicated welfare team at each school actively engaged with homeless and at-risk young people and their families. Once the young person drops out of school, the opportunities to assist them are diminished, their employment prospects are slashed and the chances of them remaining homeless are bumped up.
Teachers and other school staff are often the first to become aware that a student is experiencing family problems. We need to enable schools to work beyond internal school dynamics and with community agencies and families. The timeframe between a student becoming homeless and dropping out of school can be short; rapid response is vital.
The Road Home recognises that just maintaining our current effort will see an increase in homelessness. Decisive action and increased resources to early intervention are essential if we are to see the numbers head in the right direction.
The lack of safe and stable accommodation for so many young Australians is not simply a matter of discomfort or inconvenience and certainly isn’t a lifestyle choice for them. Their disconnection from education, work and the broader community, while being in an environment where criminal activity is the norm (PDF 162KB), is crippling for their life opportunities. We are not just failing them now, we are setting them up for a life at the margins, a life with limited choices and a life excluded from the full benefits and opportunities of society.