This National Homelessness Week we look at the rise of using motels to fill the emergency accommodation gap in South Australia in this article written by one of our HYPA staff that was originally published in Parity.

How are homelessness support services adapting to the growing demand for emergency accommodation?

This article explores the significant change in the use of motels and backpackers for young people seeking emergency accommodation but for whom there is no bed available in the South Australian homelessness sector. Motels are only to be used as a last resort for young people, yet due to the frequency of use, cost to Government and the very limited affordable housing supply, motels and backpacker hostels are increasingly becoming an alternative and accepted form of emergency accommodation.

For young people, resorting to motels is a new trend in South Australia. Anecdotally, some 6 years ago, it was rare for a young person to be placed in a motel.  It had mainly been used as an option for women escaping domestic and family violence who were “housed” in a motel to meet the short fall in other safer housing options. In more recent times, young people can request and be approved for a rental bond to be “housed” in backpacker accommodation, and on any given night, the sector is placing young people and their children in motels across the State for varying lengths of time when there are no available beds in the Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) sector.

This article explores this change in use of motels and issues associated with motel placements. We suggest the future of youth homelessness support is not to outsource support services to moteliers, but to provide earlier intervention and work collaboratively with housing providers and the Government to wisely reinvest the cost of motels into youth specific housing options.

The South Australian Context

In South Australia, NAHA funded Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) are supported by three Gateways, two with specialisation operating in business hours namely the Youth Gateway for young people aged up to 25 years and secondly, the Domestic and Aboriginal Family Violence Gateway Service;  the third is a 24-hour generalist Homelessness Gateway Services working across all target groups.

The Youth Gateway will only advocate for a motel stay for a young person aged 18-25 where:

  • there is no vacancy in the youth or adult SHS sector for which the young person meets eligibility criteria, or
  • when the person has children in their care, or
  • is needing respite from rough sleeping, or
  • has heightened vulnerabilities, and
  • has no other accommodation options available to them (such as couch surfing).

While it may seem rare that a young person aged 18-25 years is ever granted approval for a motel stay, HYPA data from its delivery of the Youth Gateway and NAHA funded Youth SHS Eastern Adelaide Youth Homelessness Service (EAYHS) tells a different story:

In 2015, 212 young people and 31 accompanying children supported by HYPA were placed in a motel or backpacker hostel for a total of 688 nights, at a cost to Housing SA of $53,623.

The Youth Gateway and EAYHS are just 2 of the 75 specialist homelessness and domestic and Aboriginal family violence services delivered across 97 outlets in SA being delivered by a range of NGO’s.  When aggregated across the State, the growing use of motels is deplorable and must be addressed. While it may be a short term fix in the face of no other available emergency accommodation options, placing young people alone in motels and backpackers simply adds to their vulnerability and feelings of being isolated, abandoned by their families and support networks, and uncertain of their future.

Motels for young people have always been and remain a request of last resort to Housing SA, and for young ones aged 17 and below, motel stays are not sought or approved. In seeking approval for Housing SA to pay for a motel or backpacker hostel, the Youth Gateway undertakes a risk assessment as does Housing SA. If approval is gained, initially a young person may be granted a 7 night stay in a backpacker (as a more cost effective measure to motels), or up to a 2 night stay in a motel.  The regional youth SHS closest to the motel receives a service referral requiring them to make contact with the young person within 24 hours and establish a case management relationship.  The intent is to ensure support follows the young person wherever they are placed.  In the event that the stay in the motel or backpacker hostel needs to be extended, it is the role of the regional youth SHS, rather than the Gateway to make that request of Housing SA, or for the young person to self-fund the motel or backpacker hostel (in whole or part) depending on the date of their next Centrelink payment.

The three Gateways and regional SHS’s work closely with Housing SA to ensure that motels as a form of crisis accommodation are used judiciously.  Approval is not granted lightly, with preference to allocating young people to a bed in the sector, or supporting a young person to negotiate with their network of informal supports such as couch surfing with a friend for yet another night.

Risk and vulnerability

Given the high demand on services and the lack of suitable short and long term housing for young people, it is an indisputable and accepted fact that motels are being used increasingly to meet the gap in crisis accommodation.

If we are to use motels as a stop gap measure, then how can we ensure the safety of young people “housed” in such a precarious situation?

The Gateways and Specialist Homelessness Services have proven their ability to act in the best interests of young people through rigorous tender processes and ongoing review of performance, organisational governance and compliance with industry relevant quality frameworks.  Far less apparent is any quality control requirement for motels or screening of moteliers.  The writer is not aware of any requirements for moteliers to undergo any screening such as a police check or ‘working with vulnerable groups’ type check.  Requiring moteliers to undertake some form of training for working with vulnerable groups raises a further set of questions.  If this requirement was imposed, are we then expecting moteliers to become a quasi-support worker? What level of training would be deemed appropriate and what would be the remit of their role?

Another challenging question is, with whom does the duty of care rest?  The Gateway/SHS that advocates for and is successful in securing or extending a motel placement?; or should it rest with Housing SA who pays for the motel stay, or the young person who “chooses” to accept the motel placement or the motelier which accepts the Housing SA payment?

Safety questions also arise when having regard to where people are placed.  In reality, a highly vulnerable young person may be placed in the same motel as a male perpetrator of violence exiting custody alongside a family seeking refuge from a violent partner.  It would be absurd to suggest we build an accommodation service with such a client mix in adjacent rooms, yet given the high use of the same motels in some locations, this is precisely what is occurring.

Marginalisation and citizenship

Accepting the fact that motels are a “good enough” solution (for now), serves to further marginalise young people from their rightful treasured position in our community, and evades community awareness of the lived nightly reality for too many young people.

The issues of youth homelessness and marginalisation of young people are reinforced when considering the effect of tourism. It is a well known fact that Adelaide experiences “Mad March” when it hosts a huge array of events and festivals which extends the vibrancy felt across the State from about Christmas.  It is a fabulous time to be in Adelaide or relaxing in the regional holiday hotspots – but not if you’re not safe or welcome in your own home or temporary shelter. During times of peak demand, it is economically prudent for moteliers to capitalise on demand and charge premium prices. Housing SA too (and ultimately the tax payer) is charged the higher tariff, and there is no onus on a motelier to accept a motel booking by Housing SA or SHS. Young people are pushed to the margins and no longer welcome as patrons in many motels, including those motels that are reliant on the bookings for their economic survival during leaner times. Additionally in times of high demand, many moteliers become increasingly fearful that an incident from a homeless patron may negatively affect the reputation of the motel amongst its premium fee paying patrons, and so refuse to accommodate people at this time.

In the mind of the writer, it is analogous to the breach of civil liberties that occurs when a city cleans up in preparation to host the Olympics and pushes its usual citizens to the outer fringes, out of sight[1].

Housing young people in motels only serves to reinforce how precarious a young person experiencing homelessness is in our community.  The tenuous nature of the stay, the uncertainty of how they will be received by the motelier and fellow patrons adds to their already low sense of self worth, agency and belonging.  The fact that so many young people are making the best of their stay speaks of their resiliency and tenacity in the face of such heightened vulnerability.

What does it say of our community?

The situation has undoubtedly come about due to a significant lack of affordable and appropriate housing options for young people. The homelessness sector is bottlenecked, unable to move young people out of youth emergency and short term accommodation into housing, to make room for those coming into the sector. As a result, motels have been permitted to become a quasi-emergency service.

If we are to make real inroads into youth homelessness and reduce the flow of young people coming into the homelessness sector, we must do more to support young people in the context of their family, personal relationships and local community. The work is to join with young people in helping home and home life become a safe and supportive place.

This body of work must be complemented by increasing the stock of housing that is affordable, appropriate and receptive of young people, so that young people who need to move from the family home can do so, whether as an exit point from homelessness or simply as the next phase in life.

Reinvesting the cost of motels into the reasons why young people are seeking crisis housing assistance would be money more wisely spent.


By Kirsten Sandstrom, HYPA Senior Manager


[1] (London Olympics); (Rio Olympics)


This article originally appeared in the April 2016 edition of Parity titled ‘The future of youth homelessness support’.