The glaring truth is that over the past decade, youth homelessness has not reduced in Australia.

That’s despite the then Federal Government’s 2008 White Paper The Road Home: A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness, which made the bold commitment to halve homelessness in Australia by 2020. 

Not only has that not happened, the incidence of young people experiencing homelessness has actually increased in that time, as outlined in the Specialist Homelessness Services Annual Report 2017-18, prepared by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

In 2016, there were approximately 27,700 young people (aged 12–24) experiencing homelessness, representing 24 per cent of the total estimated homeless population; up from 25,200 people in 2011 and 21,900 in 2006.

So why are so many of Australia’s young people homeless?

Young people don’t leave home to live on the streets or to bunk down at a friend’s place if they’re happy and safe at home.  They leave home as they feel they have no choice but to leave or are forced to leave as it’s unsafe and untenable for them to stay any longer.

Homelessness for young people also often looks very different to the stereotypical picture of homelessness, of ‘sleeping rough’ on the streets, the ‘old bloke on the park bench’.  For young people, very often it’s more a case of ‘couch surfing’ – staying at various people’s houses, be they friends or strangers, for a few nights or weeks before needing to move out and on.

Couch surfing is homelessness and is no safer than sleeping out in public spaces.  It is fraught with significant danger and insecurity.  It hides the truth about young people surviving without a safe home.  It makes the real impact and extent of youth homelessness invisible to the general public and therefore easier to ignore.

So what’s the solution?? More Housing?

More housing alone is not the panacea to youth homelessness.

With housing, must also come individualised support to address the impacts on young people of living in crisis –poor physical health, mental ill-health and effects of trauma, early school leaving, substance abuse and other self-harming coping strategies.

For young people to not become trapped in homelessness or welfare dependence, support is needed to develop the skills one would ordinarily have been taught in a nurturing household – skills and role modelling on how to develop healthy relationships, pro-social connections, manage peer influences, make wise choices about completing school, study and starting a career.

Many people’s first home in life is their “first of many”. As such, we need a range of appropriate housing in our community that is connected with the right types of services to teach, nurture and support success in education and in developing strong connection to the labour market.

Clearly, this is a far better outcome for the young people, our society generally and for our governments.

Affordable housing with tailored, tapered, individualised support that is focused on the young people moving into independence when they’re ready is, in our view, the best possible strategy for a government to prove that youth homelessness really does matter.

Exec Liz O'Connell

Liz O’Connell

Director for Young People and Practice
Director for Home, Learning and Justice