This rapid rise is concerning and, in light of the South Australian Housing and Homelessness Taskforce releasing their strategic intent document; it is evidence of a pattern of behaviour that has developed over time within the homelessness and housing system. Instead of moving in a linear fashion from homelessness to housing, a young person’s experience is circular, dropping in and out of support and housing, and the deeper we look the more interconnected factors we can see that influence a young person’s experience.

At SYC, we try to avoid problem admiration and instead focus on solutions, but in a systems thinking approach, data is an important tool to help us to describe the current reality for young people experiencing homelessness. There are also experiences and factors at play that are different for young people that must be considered when applying a systems approach to the entire housing eco-system to make sure young people do not suffer unintended consequences.

Based on the data we have available, the current reality for young people is one where they have experienced an increasingly complex set of circumstances or display numerous vulnerability factors.

Amongst the hundreds of young people we have supported this financial year, nearly three quarters of the young people accessing our case management service were homeless (rough sleeping, couch surfing or in short-term emergency accommodation) and in immediate crisis when they came to us. When they first presented, nearly a tenth had a disability, over a tenth were experiencing domestic or family violence, a fifth were experiencing drug issues, and more than half had a mental health issue. Young people who identify as First Nations were also significantly overrepresented. In addition, 4% of the people accessing our services were the children of a young person seeking our help. The group’s ability to exit homelessness was severely impacted by the fact that only 5% were employed and 54% were unemployed. Further, during their time with us nearly a tenth have required assistance for dealing with trauma, under a fifth support with living skills while 14% have required assistance for challenging social or behavioural problems.

It is clear that the current reality for young people is one that is challenging and complex, but the situation is worse when we track these features over time. Since 2014-15, rates of disability, mental health, and homelessness have all increased while experiences of domestic violence have largely remained the same. The proportion of First Nations young people has also increased while young families have remained a steady feature of the cohort. The need for trauma support, drug and alcohol counselling, living skills support, and assistance with challenging social or behavioural problems have also increased. Data on employment is available from 2015-16 and shows that unemployment is worse because less young people are engaged in education.

Analysing the data in this way we can start to identify some of the underlying structures of the existing system that are contributing to South Australia’s stubbornly high youth homelessness rate. Young people are increasingly in an immediate crisis when they come to us and this is driving an increased need for assistance with dealing with trauma. Trauma can take years to address and become manageable yet this kind of long-term support is not available.

When a young person is in crisis it is also difficult to maintain employment or a connection to education, but these are important factors to improve a young person’s ability to maintain stable, affordable housing. Without employment, a young person relying on welfare support needs public or community housing because they are unlikely to be able to afford private rental rates on their own.

Young people also need support to develop the skills they would have developed in a nurturing household. They lack familial links, or if they do have family relationships, often they are significantly fragmented or frayed. This means they need support to understand their rights and responsibilities as a tenant; connecting with community and local services; skills and role modelling on how to develop healthy relationships; pro-social connections; managing peer influences; making wise choices about completing school, study and starting a career; understanding how to communicate issues and resolve conflict; and managing cooking, cleaning and budgeting.

Finally, the increasing prominence of a range of vulnerability factors shows the interconnected parts of the system that need to be in play as part of the solution for a young person to successfully exit homelessness. This is why we strongly advocate for housing that comes with ongoing individualised support to address the impacts on young people living in crisis – poor physical health, mental ill-health and effects of trauma, early school leaving, substance abuse and other self-harming coping strategies. The increasing prominence of these factors in the youth cohort makes addressing their underlying causes in the new strategy even more important.

This analysis only begins to scratch the surface of the current reality for young people experiencing homelessness and has not even considered the wider influence of the broader economy, the labour market, the school to work transition, and the housing market for young people. When all of these factors are considered, it is possible to see why the passage to independence is not easy. Any new strategy needs to consider a range of causes and contributing factors when designing solutions that can tackle the roots of youth homelessness, otherwise we will not see the figures on repeat clients improve or the level of complexity improve.