Social Inclusion Week: promising steps to ending youth homelessness

In this post to mark Social Inclusion Week (Nov 22-30), Chris Stone writes that new integrated approaches to the complex issue of youth homelessness is offering hope for young people and communities.

Social Inclusion Week is an opportunity to connect with our communities and society, but it is also an opportunity to think of those who are excluded and how we as a society can become more inclusive.

Two key groups facing significant challenges in inclusion are vulnerable young people and the homeless. This makes the issue of youth homelessness critical to social inclusion. Youth homelessness is a ‘wicked’ problem in that it involves multiple interrelated factors, but it is not intractable. Communities around Australia are beginning to adopt approaches sufficiently holistic and integrated to make real progress on this problem.

‘Homelessness is more than rooflessness’ is phrase commonly used by those concerned with problem. For example, a house where you are frequently subjected to abuse is not a place that anyone would want to call ‘home’. And placing a child in such an environment obviously does not solve their homelessness problem. So there are multiple aspects that make a home, and therefore multiple aspects involved in homelessness. The aspects are overlapping and interrelated and so can be described in various ways.

Yfoundations, an organisation set up to end youth homelessness, identifies five ‘foundations’ integral to the process: safety and stability; a home and place to identify with and feel a connection to; health and wellness; connections to friends, family, community and/or society; and opportunities for education and employment.

Yfoundations is currently conducting a series of ‘youth forums’ in different areas of Victoria, talking to young people who have experienced homelessness in order to ‘ground truth’ the five foundations. So far one pattern that has emerged is that asking young people about what makes a home rarely includes aspects relating to education and employment (such as a quiet place to study, or proximity to jobs). However, when asked about what allows them to get and keep a home, these aspects dominate. In other words, a home that does not allow opportunities for education and employment is unlikely to remain a home for long.

This is just one illustration of the interrelated aspects involved in homelessness. This means that any solutions must likewise have integrated aspects. Unfortunately, across all states and territories, the current service system largely does not meet this need for integrated solutions. The silos in the system mean that school-based welfare assistance, community sector youth services, and government departments are often not sufficiently integrated to be effective (despite the best efforts of many within those organisations).

The necessity of this integration has been recognised for some time, but there is often an absence of practical schemes for implementing this idea. The 1989 Report of the National Inquiry into Youth Homelessness acknowledged the need for coordination between mainstream services and specialist youth support services. It also acknowledged the critical place of schools in playing a welfare role. However, there was little discussion of how coordination was to be achieved. More recently the Service Sector Reform report in Victoria also advised a holistic approach. That report emphasised the importance of an implementation process and gave some advice on how it might be developed, such as collaboration on service design, embedding partnerships and monitoring of reform. It is clear that a method for creating an integrated schools and services approach is needed.

One successful example of the sort of integrated schools and services approach that is needed occurred in Geelong. Under what became known as The Geelong Project (TGP), schools in the greater Geelong area, several community services helping youth people, two State Government departments and a University developed a coherent and robust model for collaboration involving many of the features needed for a holistic and proactive approach to the support of vulnerable children.

These features included a community-based ‘whole of population’ approach so that all children were assessed for risk (identifying a number who would not have been picked up in the previous less integrated approach). A robust practice-oriented shared data system was developed, facilitating inter-organisation coordination. Flexible practice approaches were combined with ongoing assessment to provide the most appropriate support to children at different stages of risk.

TGP is the most developed example of this ‘community of schools and services’ approach, but other similar initiative are in various stages of development amongst communities across Australia. The results of TGP so far in combating a range of issues are very promising (for example, drop-out rate amongst those at risk reduced from 19% to zero). The spread of this approach holds out the promise of significant progress in ending youth homelessness, and thereby making Australia a more inclusive society.

Chris Stone is Senior Policy Officer at Yfoundations. He has previously held a number of policy research and analysis roles, including as Researcher and Lecturer in university research centres and as a Research Director in an independent think tank. Chris has publications on a number of youth homelessness related areas, including the efficiency of different sectors in providing public and community services, innovation in service provision, the effects that new approaches to services can have on community sector provides, and policy reforms in vocational education and employment services.