Youth homelessness is reaching crisis levels

With the recent vote by Melbourne City Council to ban rough sleeping, homelessness has been in the public eye. In honour of this week’s Youth Homelessness Matters day, today’s blog provides a practitioner view of youth homelessness in Victoria.  Megan Kennedy and Ebony Canavan, with the Youth Homelessness Service at Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, explain how recent policy changes are impacting on their clients.

When darkness falls, more and more young people have nowhere to go. Suburban street, Box Hill, at night, Lyle Fowler (1949). Photo courtesy of the  State Library of Victoria . 

When darkness falls, more and more young people have nowhere to go. Suburban street, Box Hill, at night, Lyle Fowler (1949). Photo courtesy of the State Library of Victoria

Youth Homelessness Matters day is occurring this year on the 5th of April. An important part of the day is raising awareness and breaking down the stigma surrounding youth homelessness. Children and young people make up 42 per cent of Australians who are homeless.

People experiencing homelessness are not just sleeping on the streets or under bridges. Anyone who is living without a sense of security, stability, privacy and/or safety is experiencing homelessness and is at risk. Homelessness can take many forms, including but not limited to sleeping rough, couch surfing, sleeping in a car, living in crisis accommodation and any other form of inappropriate dwelling.

The most recent statistics from the 2011 Census suggest that close to 6,117 young Victorians aged 12-24 are homeless on any given night. While there is not yet a report from the 2016 Census we know that homelessness is at crisis point and more people are experiencing homelessness than ever before.  For young people, this is due in part to repeated cuts to their Centrelink payments, with more cuts planned.  Recent research tells us that preventing homelessness is far more cost effective than creating a system where young people are more likely to experience homelessness. However, policy decisions don’t seem to be in line with this advice.

A significant number of culturally and linguistically diverse young people from non-English speaking backgrounds, often newly arrived and who lack appropriate supports, are currently in the homeless system. Equally concerning is the over-representation of young Indigenous Australians, despite comprising only 3 per cent of the population. The 2011 census estimated that roughly 26,743 Indigenous people were experiencing homelessness, which constitutes 28% of all homeless people who provided information about their Indigenous status. Additionally, there is a lack of data for young people experiencing homelessness who identify as LGBTI+. Estimates are that one in four people experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTI+, but as this information is often not disclosed it means targeted supports cannot be put in place.

Often we get asked why young people are homeless.  There are a multitude of reasons why, including but not limited to family violence; family breakdown; loss or lack of employment and job opportunities; academic pressure; childhood trauma/neglect; substance abuse; mental health issues; cultural reasons, lack of appropriate living skills; and/or limited or no supports.

Every one of us at some point in our lives may be affected by one or more of the issues listed above. The important thing to note is that someone is never “just homeless”. Homelessness is the result of complex barriers that prevent people from accessing and sustaining stable housing, each of which can compound the other.

Good Shepherd’s Youth Homelessness Service (YHS) supports young people experiencing or ‘at risk’ of homelessness. The service works within the Opening Doors Framework which aims to provide a central and consistent response to young people. When a young person requires support for homelessness they need to present at a ‘homelessness access point’ for assessment and prioritisation. There are approximately 70 homelessness access points throughout Melbourne and Regional Victoria.

YHS receive referrals from access points that are prioritised depending on individual needs, which are then allocated to either phone support, case management or intensive task-orientated support. The support period can range from a number of weeks to years dependant on the situation.

Housing options for young people include crisis accommodation; youth refuge; transitional housing, supported accommodation; social and public housing; private rental; and shared and student accommodation. Many if not all of these options are either not suitable or inaccessible for reasons such as discrimination, lack of affordability and the existence of complex support needs. For example, crisis accommodation is expensive and funding is limited. There are not enough refuges to support the number of people on waitlists - often pages long. Each access point manages a transitional housing waitlist of hundreds of people. Being housed through the homelessness or public system can take up to thirty years. Furthermore, tenants are required to have the skills necessary to maintain a home including cooking, cleaning, budgeting and paying bills – skills many vulnerable young people lack.

Private rental makes up more than half of all housing in Australia and remains the main option for housing young people. Anyone who has explored the private rental market will understand the difficulty and competitive nature of securing a property. Many of our clients are studying or receive Centrelink benefits or casual wages. The going wage for a young person on benefits is approximately $250 per week which is below the poverty line. Recommended rental guidelines suggest no more than one third of income is spent on rent, which means many of our clients have a maximum rental budget of $75 per week plus bills, food and travel expenses. This is impossible.  A recent report on the state of the rental market in Australia found that that 60 per cent of renters in Victoria are paying more than $301 per week.

The limited number of young people who are suited to accessing private rental either by sharing or working casually have limited or no rental history, are sometimes single parents and often from culturally diverse backgrounds. While there is some understanding from real estate agencies, more often young people are discriminated against and stigmatised (which is not unusual; half of all renters in Australia report experiencing discrimination). Whilst twenty or more rental applications are rejected, the young person remains homeless and their outlook bleak.  

Young people experiencing homelessness have very limited options and often remain at risk while they are sleeping rough, couch surfing or living in inappropriate dwellings. Not surprisingly, this state of perpetual crisis makes it difficult for homeless young people to find and sustain employment.  Even without the compounding issues of trauma, mental illness or substance abuse, there are not enough options for young people experiencing homeless.  We are in crisis.

If you or someone you know requires homelessness support, call 1800 825 955 for information on your local homelessness access point.