The young homeless

24 September 2020 | Posted In: #136 Spring 2020, Homelessness,

A new report from Mission Australia provides unique insight into youth homelessness. Christopher Kelly distills the details.

Homelessness can be an isolating, destabilising and often traumatic experience. For children and young people, homelessness can be particularly devastating to their development and its effects are often long lasting. Stable, affordable and suitable housing is essential for a young person’s economic, mental, physical and social wellbeing. It is also connected to a positive sense of self, good health, and social cohesion.

Young people undergo many changes as they go through adolescence: physical changes, changes to their emotions and ways of thinking, a shifting sense of identity and values, new relationships, and newly developed aspirations for their future. This period in a young person’s life — when they take on new roles and responsibilities — is critical in setting the stage for a happy and successful adulthood. To complete the transition, young people need to fulfil educational goals, become economically self-sufficient, and develop and maintain social relationships. All of these milestones are much more difficult to achieve for young people experiencing homelessness.

More than 43,500 children and young people in Australia are homeless. The 2016 Census reported that almost one-quarter of Australia’s homeless population was aged between 12 and 24 years. It is generally accepted, however, that these figures underestimate the extent of the problem. Many young people experience “hidden homelessness” — staying with friends or relatives because they lack housing opportunities.

Last month, Mission Australia released the findings from its annual Youth Survey report. Among the 22,673 respondents — aged 15 to 19 years — more than one in six young people (3,876 or 17.1 percent) reported having an experience of homelessness. In a national breakdown, the total number of respondents who had experienced homelessness in NSW was 933 — the second highest number after Queensland. In response to the findings, Mission Australia CEO James Toomey said: “Many people would be shocked to learn that one in six young people aged 15 to 19 years in Australia have been homeless at some stage in their lives.”

A concerning proportion of the respondents said they have experienced either time without a fixed address or lived in a refuge or transitional accommodation (6.6 percent) and/or spent time couch surfing (13 percent). Couch surfing, explain the report’s authors, “refers to people who stay away from their usual residence, living temporarily with other households because they feel unable to return home”. They might be sleeping on friends’ sofas, in spare rooms or garages. In many cases, this experience of homelessness was not an isolated one-off incident, with the majority of couch surfers reporting they have spent time away from home more than once, and a small but important minority — 5.8 percent — suggesting they typically stay away for longer than six months.

“This cannot be accepted as just the way things are,” said Toomey. “If we stand idle, too many young people will
continue to be pushed into homelessness and will be on the back foot as they transition to adulthood. Many will miss out on crucial education and employment opportunities as they shift from one inadequate and temporary dwelling to another. Without the stability of a safe place to call home, these young people are facing the torment of bullying, mental health concerns and ongoing family conflict.”

Indeed, more than half (51.7 percent) of young people who have experienced homelessness indicated some form of psychological distress. This is over twice the proportion of those who have never experienced homelessness. Studies have consistently found that young people experiencing homelessness have a much higher incidence of mental health conditions, such as mood and anxiety disorders, compared with the general youth population. There is also a higher incidence of self-harm and attempted suicide among homeless young people. “They’re facing a great deal of stress and mental health concerns,” said Toomey. “They’re experiencing lower levels of happiness and they’re facing seemingly insurmountable barriers as they move into their adult lives.”

The survey also found that young people who have experienced homelessness face more problems at school, endure more family conflicts (including greater incidences of domestic and family violence), are more likely to have personal safety concerns, and alcohol and drug dependence issues.

Within any discussion of child and youth homelessness in Australia attention needs to be paid to the high incidence of homelessness for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people. As a consequence of colonialism, racism, the impact of stolen generations, and the dispossession from land, cultural and traditional social structures, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities experience disproportionately high levels of homelessness, contributed by social stressors such as poor housing or overcrowding, poverty, and unemployment.

Improving the housing supply for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people and their families, say the report’s authors, “will not only reduce homelessness, but also improve health and education outcomes while ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people can receive the benefit of strong support from their families and communities”. The authors also recommend “designing housing and homelessness services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with community members, with delivery by Aboriginal community controlled organisations”.

Another important discussion within youth homelessness debates is the high incidence of homelessness amongst the LGBTQ+ population. Indeed, a study found that lesbian, gay and bisexual respondents were at least twice as likely than heterosexuals to have experienced homelessness, with rejection by family and the community a main driver of homelessness among LGBTQ+ young people.

As the report’s authors note: housing and homelessness-related issues “are demonstrably more complex for LGBTQ+ young people who are experiencing other intersecting issues” such as discrimination and a lack of support at home, work or school. It is important, then, say the authors, to ensure housing and homelessness services are “welcoming and sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ+ young people”.

Another important subset of Australia’s young homeless featured in the report are those from migrant and refugee backgrounds. Existing research demonstrates that young people from refugee backgrounds are six to ten times more likely to be at-risk of homelessness than Australian-born young people. It is estimated that between 500 and 800 young refugees are homeless Australia-wide, and this number is growing.

The report recommends that young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds are provided with culturally appropriate housing support — including easy access to language services. Crucially, the authors call for young people on temporary visas to be granted access to income support.

As the report highlights, young people as a whole generally face multiple barriers and experience significant discrimination to accessing affordable and appropriate housing. Fewer financial resources, high rental costs, competitive demand for rental properties, lack of rental references, and the lack of long-term social housing all place young people at a disadvantage in accessing adequate housing.

As well, the casualisation of the workforce, a rise in part-time work and general job insecurity has led to increased unemployment risks — especially for young people. The rate of youth unemployment and underemployment has increased in recent years: the current youth unemployment rate is more than double the general population (15.3 percent compared to 7.4 percent, seasonally adjusted).

These challenges that young people face have been further exacerbated this year by the response to COVID-19. In June 2020, the unemployment rate for 15 to 24 year olds increased to 16.4 percent (up from 12.1 percent in 2019). To prevent homelessness amongst the young and increase housing affordability, the authors of the report suggest increasing social security payments such as Youth Allowance and the Commonwealth Rent Assistance.

The report lists a number of other key recommendations to combat youth homelessness. They include: developing a national homeless strategy with a special focus on youth homelessness; the creation of a national framework that places young people with lived experience of homelessness at the centre of design and implementation efforts so that services cater to their diverse needs and experiences; and replicating and funding early intervention
services that prevent young people becoming homeless before they reach crisis point.

“Ultimately, early intervention is key,” said Toomey, “and we urge governments to do everything it takes so that young people can avoid homelessness, or move quickly out of homelessness if it does occur. This report not only shines a light on the magnitude of youth homelessness here in Australia, but also gives us a clearer understanding of how the experience of homelessness unfairly chips away at these young people’s lives, their wellbeing, and their futures. We can and must take action to make real and lasting change and commit to ending youth homelessness in our country.”

Source: Staying Home: a Youth Survey report on young people’s experience of homelessness — Mission Australia.