It is hard for many of us to comprehend, but trapped within the current political and social system, children as young as 12 are facing life without a permanent roof over their heads.
The 2016 census recorded over 37,000 people without a home in New South Wales. This figure is even more sobering when you realise 9,000 of those were children. While the problem is not unique to NSW, there is no escaping the fact that the state is Australia’s worst offender. The next closest is Victoria, with 6,373.
Reducing youth homelessness had been one of the NSW Premier’s key 12 priorities, backed with actions including the Rent Choice Youth Subsidy and investing $1 billion into social housing and homelessness services.
The team previously reached its goal of increasing the number of young people entering stable housing from 29% to 34%. While the sentiment — and the cash — appeared to be heading in the right direction as one small part of solution, it is now unclear what the Premier and her new team are planning on committing to around youth homelessness specifically. This time around, the targets must be higher.
And while there has been a pre-election commitment by the NSW Premier to reduce rough sleeping, we want it to go further. Homelessness is not just the young people seen sleeping rough on the streets; it’s those couch-surfing or sleeping in their car, and the thousands taking refuge in overcrowded homeless shelters. Reducing rough sleeping is one part of the solution, and it isn’t focussed on prevention.
Nationally, things are even more worrying. Compared to other countries, Australia’s youth homelessness efforts are ineffective and almost non-existent. The unfathomable fact is, there is no single national plan for reducing youth homelessness. Governments come and go, but the issues faced by our young people remain.
It’s important to realise that those affected by homelessness have ever-changing, complex needs. The most obvious solutions are not always the best, and often leave us with more questions than answers.
Consider this: how could a young person hope to get Centrelink, Medicare benefits or even a job if they don’t have a fixed address? How could they possibly secure enough money to get a private rental, especially with little or no references or employment history? How could they get a driver’s license without a family to help them learn, or the money to pay for lessons?
These are the questions Australia must face up to, fast. For 30 years, we have been making the same findings, and offering similar solutions. So how do we dig our way out?
Youth homelessness comes from a mix of factors, including domestic violence, mental health, family breakdowns, and financial hardship. The real solutions will come when we start facing up to the issue’s painful root causes.
As it stands, our system has a one track mind, focussing on picking up the pieces after the damage has already been done. The model focuses on repairing the damage after a crisis — but imagine what could be achieved if we channelled more funding into early intervention services.
Children faced with homelessness from a young age are far more likely to drop out of school and fail to find regular, consistent employment. Instead of putting a band-aid over the wound, early intervention can stop the fall from happening in the first place.
Currently, there are many gaps in support for children and young people between the ages of 12 and 24. In NSW, the Department of Family and Community Services has made some inroads with its Homeless Youth Assistance Program, but the money doesn’t stretch far enough. Places are few and far between, and there’s often confusion around who actually holds responsibility for that child.
Foster and care homes are not available for everyone who might need care. Children can have multiple placements — 15 is not an uncommon number — which fail to provide stability throughout those formative years. While carers and foster agencies have seen investment, young people are still lacking adequate, stable homes to allow them time and opportunity to repair.
A difficult problem requires a holistic solution. Instead of simply throwing more money at standalone programs or services, we must ensure schools, real estate agents, social services, businesses and charities work together as a cohesive unit.
Take Canada, for example, where a roadmap is already in place. The wide-ranging plan provides a great example that Australia should sit up and take note of. As its executive summary rightly points out: “Prevention is generally accepted as more effective and desirable than waiting for complex problems to spiral out of control before intervening.”
While NSW clearly has a lot of work to do (we have the highest number of young people experiencing homelessness in the nation), a national crisis also requires a national plan. As it stands, Australia has no single path towards solving the problem. It’s not an impossible dream — there are already federal mechanisms that could go a long way to fixing the problem, including a cohesive housing plan and raising youth allowance.
A society which fails to protect its children from homelessness is fundamentally broken. In order to truly fix the break, we must create an all-encompassing roadmap which aims to address and prevent youth homelessness. It shouldn’t be created in isolation, but as a thread which weaves into other priorities including sustainable housing, domestic violence and protecting our kids.
These young people are not faceless statistics. They went to school with your children, lived in your neighbourhood, or sat next to you on the train. Their plight is your problem and it is mine.
Sure, there are policies in place. But as it stands, our efforts are too small. We must urgently recognise that youth homelessness is an issue for the entire community, and that Australia sits far behind its global equivalents. Shelter and security are fundamental human rights, and as things stand, children all around us are being denied that right. It’s time Australia put its own roadmap in place, before we slip even further behind the rest of the world.