Consider your children’s or grandchildren’s friends and classmates, and your young relatives such as nieces and nephews.
At least one of them is at risk of homelessness.
Mission Australia's Youth Survey last year found nearly one in seven (13.5%) of 15 to 19 year old Australians spent time away from home in the last three years because they felt they couldn't return.
This week we recognise Youth Homelessness Matters Day (13 April 2016). It's time to challenge the misconceptions about what youth homelessness actually looks like in Australia today.
Rather than sleeping rough, a more common pattern is children and young people “couch surfing” because they believe they can’t go back home. They live temporarily with other households – perhaps sleeping on friends’ sofas, or in the spare room or garage of a relative.
The prevalence of couch surfing is startling.
The findings of Mission Australia’s Youth Survey reveal a critical group of young people who couch surf repeatedly, often for extended periods, because they feel they can’t stay at home. They have poor family relationships, lack confidence in the future, are unsure of their ability to cope with stress and are concerned about depression and suicide.
And, tragically, many are driven into homelessness by family conflict or domestic violence. Family conflict affects 1.9 million Australian children in their early to middle years. More than half the homeless young people in one study had left home on at least one occasion because of violence between parents or guardians; the median age of first leaving home was only 10.
For young people who can’t go back home because of family conflict or violence, what starts as intermittent couch surfing can turn into more entrenched homelessness. They lose connections to school and old social networks. They find new friends and develop a sense of belonging in the homeless subculture. They come to accept homelessness as a way of life.
Homeless young people have worse physical and mental health than others their age. They have much higher incidences of reported self-injury and attempted suicide. With education disrupted and no stable home, they have a greater likelihood of leaving school early and significantly higher unemployment rates than their peers.
The good news is no young person need be condemned to live such a life.
Specialist services can support homeless young people to find their way, access expert help (such as for mental health or substance abuse), reconcile with family if that’s safe and possible, or if not, find supportive accommodation.
Workers in services nationwide are doing an amazing job supporting young people towards independence. But these services are over-stretched and under-resourced and must frequently turn away young people seeking help.
Considering how many young people are at risk of homelessness, we need more school-based schemes to identify and help young people before a crisis eventuates. A place-based coalition of schools and services was first trialled in Geelong, where 100% of at-risk students retained or obtained safe sustainable accommodation. Mission Australia leads a similar joint initiative in Ryde and a further project has commenced on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Without more similar schemes, kids at risk often go unnoticed and so don’t receive the early help to prevent future homelessness. We ask all State Governments to replicate this effective and necessary model in all areas of need.
The Commonwealth Government also needs to take responsibility and continue to fund important family reconciliation services under the Reconnect program. Without this, 102 vital services around Australia will have to close next year.
Youth homelessness matters to all of us and is closer than we like to think. Let’s ask all levels of government to take real steps to help the more than 44,000 homeless children and young people in Australia … and to stop more kids becoming homeless in the first place.
CEO Mission Australia