One in six young people in Australia have experienced homelessness. Young people make up around 40% of those experiencing homelessness. Without the right support, many will continue to experience homelessness for a large portion of their lives.
What is homelessness?
A common misconception is that ‘homelessness’ describes the experience of people living rough on the streets. While this describes the experience of some people, homelessness describes a person’s experience of living without safe, secure, and stable housing.
Couch-surfing is the most dominant form of homelessness among young people, where people live with friends or family members for short periods of time, ranging from days to months. The short stays may be interspersed with short-term accommodation at boarding houses or even nights of sleeping rough. It is important to remember that each person’s experience of homelessness is different.
Why do young people experience homelessness?
Young people may find themselves homeless for a number of reasons. Family instability or overcrowding at home, domestic and family violence, alcohol and drug use, and breakdown of relationships can all contribute, as can societal issues like unaffordable housing and unemployment.
Factors like sexuality and gender diversity also contribute to youth homelessness: LGBT+ youth are at a higher risk due to hostility, discrimination, or lack of acceptance at home, and are more likely to experience discrimination and even bullying when seeking traditional boarding services.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are overrepresented in the population experiencing homelessness. They experience a rate of homelessness that is four times greater than other Australians. Indigenous young people under the age of 18 make up around 40% of this population.
What impact can homelessness have on young people?
The experience of homelessness is often accompanied by a myriad of other stressors. Young people who have experienced homelessness are twice as likely as those who haven’t to have been bullied in the past year.
Factors like financial difficulty, family responsibilities, and lack of family support can prevent them from achieving study or work goals that could contribute to future stability. The combined experience of homelessness, family instability, and financial stress means these young people are twice as likely to experience psychological distress and trauma than those that haven’t experienced homelessness.
What services are available?
In the 2020-21 financial year, the Australian Government expects to spend around $8.4 billion in housing support and homelessness services. The Government has also committed up to $118 million over five years to 30 June 2023 toward the Reconnect Program. The Reconnect Program helps young people to find stable accommodation, improve family relationships, find work or education opportunities, and to participate in their local community.
Centrelink provides people who are vulnerable or at risk of homelessness with the option of weekly payments with the aim of preventing homelessness. However, access to payments can be difficult for people unfamiliar with the system or for young people who are unable to obtain consent from parents or carers when signing forms.
Non-government organisations like the Salvation Army and the Australian Red Cross offer support to young people experiencing homelessness, or those at risk of becoming homeless. They help people map a pathway out of homelessness by linking them with housing services, providing meals, providing education and training, and negotiating with landlords.
What is the solution?
A general approach to helping young people experiencing homelessness will not work. Unique experiences of homelessness require unique solutions. Tailored services for housing support, financial support, and counselling should be available based on an individual’s needs. People with lived experience of homelessness must be included in designing support projects and programs so that the needs of people seeking help are understood and met.
The innate understanding and empathy of peer support workers can be utilised within the homelessness sector to ensure that those seeking help feel more comfortable disclosing, or not disclosing, certain details about their situation.
This type of support can also help to avoid re-traumatisation that may be experienced when a person feels they have to relive and redescribe their experiences to support workers without lived experience so that they can understand their situation. Training is available for workers in the homelessness sector to navigate trauma in care and support.