Homelessness: blanket solutions don’t apply
This week is Homeless Person’s Week and for seven days coins will be collected, awareness raised and pledges made to reduce the number of Australians who don’t have a place to call home.
Recent research from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare puts that figure at more than 100,000, of which almost half are under the age of 25. On the 12th of August, Homeless Person’s Week and International Youth Day will collide, prompting consideration of some of the most vulnerable in our community: those who are both young and homeless.
Complex combinations of mental illness, low levels of education, family breakdown, financial struggles, and a severe lack of services leave homeless young people in a precarious situation.
Melbourne City Mission’s Frontyard Youth Service is one of the largest homelessness services providers in the state. Wayne Merrit is the program’s manager and says we’re missing an opportunity to potentially eradicate youth homelessness for good.
“We have much higher long-term success rates with young people because they haven’t been homeless for as long and it’s not so entrenched within them.
“Unfortunately this is a huge issue but it doesn’t get much attention because it isn’t sexy or glamorous,” he says.
Maree McCleary tends to agree. Maree is Team Leader at the Springboard Youth Refuge Program, which houses young people for a period of six to eight weeks. She says we need to challenge the stereotypes we hold about these young people.
“A lot of young people walk through the door of the refuge and just burst into tears, the boys and the girls. I think it’s because they know they’re finally safe. They can’t believe they can go to the fridge and help themselves to something to eat, they can’t believe there’s a shower with hot water.”
“For so long they’ve been on guard, not trusting anyone. We have to work with them to build that trust but once they can relax you find they’re still very soft on the inside.”
Almost 65% of people aged 15-24 presenting alone to homelessness services are young women. While men most often state financial difficulty as their primary reason for homelessness, for women it’s domestic violence.
This was *Josie’s experience.
“Late one night things just got so bad with mum that I was leaning against my bedroom door trying to stop her from hitting me. She screamed at me and said I had to move out. It was dark and I didn’t have a car or any money, I didn’t know what to do. I knew I’d be out on the street.”
The Federal Government’s 2008 White Paper The Road Home calls for early intervention and prevention measures to be a key component of policy and response by 2020. But those working in the sector say it could be a long way off.
Anglicare Victoria’s Breaking the Barriers program aims to help young people avoid homelessness by making successful transitions from state care to independent living. Deb Ireland is the program’s manager.
“We’re in such a big crisis that crisis control is all we can think about, it’s getting all the focus. There’s not enough funding for the services that already exist, let alone any early intervention or prevention work,” Deb says.
For those who are homeless and seek help, the road back to safe and stable housing isn’t easy. There is a severe lack of exit points for young people leaving homeless services and the National Youth Commission Inquiry into Youth Homelessness predicts the most common outcome for young people leaving such services is returning to homelessness.
Melbourne City Mission’s Wayne Merritt says integrated services are the best way forward.
“We need to look at models that have a variety of services in one place. There’s so much crossover with drug and alcohol use, family breakdown, financial issues and mental illness that it makes sense to address them all in a holistic way. We need to reduce the bureaucracy,” he says.
Mental illness is a particularly prominent precursor to, and consequence of, homelessness. Eastern Health reports 89 per cent of homeless youth have experienced significant mental health problems. Mission Australia reveals more than 40 per cent of homelessness young people have attempted suicide.
“There are a lot of people with mental illnesses that slip through the cracks in the housing system,” Maree McCleary says.
“They’re told outright that they need too much support for private rental but not enough for assisted accommodation.”
Any way you look at it, the issue of youth homelessness is a complex one to which blanket solutions do not apply. One thing, however, that is agreed upon within the sector is the pivotal role of education in empowering young people out of homelessness.
“This year our team has seen around 50 clients and I can only think of one who completed year 12. Even to get a job at some fast food outlets you have to sit an entry test that includes year 10 maths, so for the majority of our kids who left school before year 8, even low paid jobs are unattainable,” Deb Ireland says.
Evidently there is far more to homelessness than a lack of shelter. Our young people are ending up unsafe because of a range of complex issues that can only be combated by more focus, more funding and an integration of long-term services. If, as Wayne Merritt suggests, we are to eradicate, or at the very least reduce, youth homelessness, more must be done by the government, the welfare sector and the general community.
Every year the United Nations International Youth Day is assigned a theme, a conceptual slogan that encapsulates the objectives for the coming 12 months. This year’s theme, “Building a Better World: Partnering with Youth” seems particularly poignant.
Yet whether the young people spending tonight under a bridge feel as though there is a place for them in this so-called “Better World,” remains to be seen.
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