The human cost would pull anyone’s heart strings but the economic cost should also pull at the purse strings

We’ve heard much noise from the Government about the need for savings as we approach the budget.

While the budget should not be solely focussed on the expenditure side, there are some clear savings on offer that support rather than harm some of the most vulnerable Australians.

Released 28 April, the Cost of Youth Homelessness Report paints a stark picture of the cost to society of failing to support vulnerable young people who are homeless or at high risk of homelessness.

Importantly, the study shows that preventing young people from becoming homeless in the first place could save governments an estimated $626 million per year across the youth justice and health services systems alone.

Imagine that, an extra $626 million in the government coffers. Of course, it requires upfront investment in the programs that are proven to work. But why wouldn’t we do that if we knew young people would be safe and housed and the taxpayer could avoid the high health and justice costs that would otherwise be incurred?

It does not have to be a budget of winners and losers. When we recognise the dividends from early investment in our most precious resource – our human potential – we can have a win-win situation. The Government’s own welfare review has highlighted the value in investing early in young people to prevent long-term welfare dependency.

When we prevent homelessness young people have less health problems and less contact with the criminal justice system, saving public money as well as saving lives.

I’ll be brutally honest, without the right supports, the outlook for young homeless people is grim.

They have a much higher incidence of reported self-injury and attempted suicide and worse general health. With education disrupted and no stable home address, homeless young people have a greater likelihood of leaving school early and significantly higher unemployment rates than their peers. It’s a lonely, dangerous, chaotic existence that can feel hopeless at a time that should be filled with hope and possibility.

The positive news is that no young person need be condemned to live such a life.

For those couch surfing intermittently or just starting to experience conflict at home, early intervention services can stop the situation worsening.

And for young people experiencing more entrenched homelessness, specialist services can support them to find their way, link in to expert help, reconcile with family - if that’s safe and possible - or if it’s not find supportive accommodation.

But for too long, governments have deprioritised and devalued both acute support services and early intervention programs as identified as critical in today’s Cost of Youth Homelessness Report.

Prevention is always better than cure, but there simply aren’t enough schools-based schemes to identify students at risk of homelessness and quickly wrap services around them.

Our latest Youth Survey showed that 1 in 7 young people were at risk of homelessness. But it is often hard to tell which young people need help until it is too late. Schools are the best place to identify students at risk and link them with services to prevent homelessness. Mission Australia has been taking this approach as part of The Ryde Project in Sydney but there are many other areas that need such a scheme.

At the crisis end, specialist homelessness services are stretched and frequently have to turn away young people who seek help.

Only 6% of young people presenting alone to specialist homelessness services who need long-term accommodation actually receive it. It’s an awful statistic, and one we should all be deeply embarrassed by.

Yes, more youth specific accommodation models are needed – but wouldn’t it ultimately be better to intervene early rather than scrambling for a crisis response that is inevitably more expensive.

The human cost would pull anyone’s heart strings but the economic cost should also pull at the purse strings.

Catherine Yeomans


Catherine Yeomans
CEO Mission Australia


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