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Youth homelessness on the rise in Australia

Mission Australia report reveals this hidden problem

Zoe is only 14. She has a difficult relationship with alcohol and drugs – and with her parents. Inevitably, Zoe’s mental health suffers. Her parents struggle to cope, so Zoe moves out of home. She stays at different places.

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While Zoe’s story has a happy ending – she received help that reunited her with her family – many young people in Australia suffer homelessness without anyone realising.

One in six young people have experienced homelessness

“Hidden homelessness” is already a desperate reality for tens of thousands of young people in Australia, and its a growing problem. Rather than sleeping rough on the streets, “hidden homelessness” means people are moving between temporary accommodations such as couches, garages, cars or squalid, crowded share houses.

According to a new report released today by Mission Australia – ahead of Homelessness Week, starting August 6 – one in six young people have experienced homelessness.

The Young People’s Experience of Homelessness report ­is based on Mission Australia’s Youth Survey 2017, which polled more than 24,000 young people aged 15-19 years across the country. While Mission Australia has conducted its Youth Survey for the past 16 years, this is the first time young people have been asked about their experience of homelessness.

Of those who respondened and had experienced homelessness:

  • Almost half (48 per cent) had a probable serious mental illness.
  • 44 per cent were highly concerned about family violence.
  • 44 per cent were highly concerned about depression.
  • One in five of those who had “couch-surfed” had done so before the age of 12.

“We see, both anecdotally and in research amongst people who are experiencing homelessness, that the prevalence of mental illness is extremely high … For example, around 70 to 80 per cent of rough sleepers have a mental illness,” says CEO of Mission Australia James Toomey.

“It’s difficult to discern if having a probable serious mental health issue is a cause of homelessness or if it’s a result of experiencing homelessness.” – James Toomey

“In the [Youth] Survey in general, 20-25 per cent of young people would be defined as having a probable serious mental illness. Whereas, we see this over-represented in the young people who have experienced homelessness [at 48 per cent]. This shows that mental health supports for young people are incredibly important but difficult to access.”

James Toomey says homelessness breeds homelessness.

James Toomey says homelessness breeds homelessness.

Without stable accommodation and a good support network, these mental illnesses are often left untreated and unmanaged. “It’s difficult to discern if having a probable serious mental health issue is a cause of homelessness or if it’s a result of experiencing homelessness,” says Toomey.

“Certainly, the people I speak to who have experienced homelessness will say that if you didn’t have a mental illness before you became homeless, then the experience of being homeless is likely to trigger one.”

The prevalence of homelessness is also higher among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth due to socioeconomic disadvantage, a lack of appropriate housing in remote locations and a history of dispossession. Domestic and family violence is another major risk factor, as young people are often unable to find suitable alternative accommodation when fleeing unsafe domestic situations.

Without support, the impact of homelessness can be lasting. These young people have a higher incidence of reported self-injury and attempted suicide, a greater likelihood of leaving school early and significantly higher levels of unemployment.

The problem of hidden homelessness, where people live in temporary and unsuitable accommodation, is a growing trend in Australia. While many of us think of homelessness as “rooflessness” or sleeping rough, the internationally recognised definition of homelessness includes those living in accommodation where there is severe overcrowding.

Hidden homelessness is a growing trend in Australia.

“The likely outcome is that these young people enter into what gets called couch-surfing. This may sound quite attractive, but it’s not at all. It means waking up every day and not knowing where you are going to stay that night, and moving from temporary or unsuitable accommodation frequently in order to avoid family conflict,” says Toomey.

“In some of those situations where people are living in severe overcrowding, they are still working, paying taxes and contributing to society through their economic activity.

“You might be living next door to a house that is severely overcrowded … but not be aware that these people are living in appalling, overcrowded conditions, and that is actually homelessness,” says Toomey.

What can be done about this increasing issue? According to Toomey, young people need to be a key focus of any strategy. “If you become homeless as a young person, you are very likely to become, or even remain, homeless as an adult. Policies and practices that aim at earlier intervention and prevention of young people entering homelessness are going to have a longer-term, greater benefit – not only for that young person themselves, but also for society more widely.”

Those involved have targeted a date to eliminate homelessness in Australia: 2030.

A significant number of the young people surveyed who had experienced homelessness had previously been in state care, such as a foster care placement or a group home. According to Toomey, the fact that they exited care into homelessness “really indicates that there is a lack of cohesive thinking about a strategy for preventing young people from leaving public care and exiting into homelessness.”

Mission Australia has joined with other organisations, government and community groups in a campaign called “Everybody’s Home.” The aim is to create greater awareness about the issue of homelessness in Australia and the shortage of social and affordable housing across Australia. Those involved have targeted a date to eliminate homelessness in Australia: 2030.

“We calculate that will require another 500,000 social and affordable homes to be built in that time or made available to rent,” says Toomey.

Churches and Christian communities are an integral part of this vision. While Toomey notes faith-based organisations and churches are already doing great work in this area, he stresses there is a lot more that could be done.

“I think there is a responsibility and opportunity for churches to talk to their congregations and communities about the social issues of homelessness.” – James Toomey

“There are some physical [built] resources which are available within the broad Christian community in Australia that are underutilised. Are there ways of utilising those to provide suitable accommodation and making those available to those who are homeless?”

Homelessness Week is just around the corner (6-13 August), with the fitting theme of “ending homelessness together.” Toomey suggests it’s the perfect opportunity for the Christian community to consider how we can play our part in addressing this major societal problem.

“I think there is a responsibility and opportunity for churches to talk to their congregations and communities about the social issues of homelessness … and mobilise people in their congregations to support organisations through donations or look at their own communities and ask themselves what they are able to do with some of the resources available.”

“Pause and think for a moment about what the lived experience of homelessness would mean for you – waking up every morning and not knowing where you’ll stay that night because you are couch-surfing, or being unable to access suitable public transport, or access work or other opportunities because you don’t know where you will be staying that night.

“Think about the knock-on effect of how that would affect you economically and socially.”

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