Understanding youth homelessness

Published on 02 May 2018

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture an older person sleeping on the sidewalk. We don’t necessarily think of young people, who actually make up [over a quarter of Australians experiencing homelessness](https://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/about/homel essness-statistics). According to the latest ABS figures, homelessness among 19-24 year-olds in Victoria has doubled in the last ten years, soaring 66 per cent between [2006 to 2016]

Youth homelessness is complex and often misunderstood, flying under the radar of public awareness and allowing harmful stereotypes to abound. In the first of our series on youth homelessness, we ask Donna Bennett, CEO of Hope Street, to shed some light on common misconceptions of vulnerable young people.

Youth homelessness is complex and often misunderstood, flying under the radar of public awareness and allowing harmful stereotypes to abound. In the first of our series on youth homelessness, we ask Donna Bennett, CEO of Hope Street, to shed some light on common misconceptions of vulnerable young people.

Hi Donna, first of all, what are some of the factors that lead to homelessness among young people?

Family violence, which could be conflict, violence or sustained neglect in the family home is a major one. Other causes are often long-term poverty in the family, intergenerational unemployment, plus housing and financial stress. Sometimes young people are asked to leave home because families can’t afford to have them.

There are also parents who may experience homelessness and might have been able to find somewhere to live but can’t have their children with them, so their older children tend to leave to find alternative accommodation. What we find is that young people who have left home don’t often leave with a parent or sibling. It just reaches a point where they can no longer stay, so they leave on their own.

Why are young people experiencing homelessness often referred to as an “invisible” group?

Young people don’t tend to come forward to ask for help, so they’re a lot less visible. Young people have quite a high level of distrust of adults – they’ve come from a situation where adults in their life have been abusive or neglectful – so they tend not to go to an agency or GP and tell them that they’re experiencing homelessness. Instead they tend to ask to stay with
their friends. The homelessness service system isn’t an easy system to
navigate for young people.

We don’t often see young people sleeping on the streets, but the statistics show that they are sleeping rough.

Yes, we think of rough sleeping as older people sleeping on footpaths in the CBD, but it’s certainly not the case for young people as they don’t feel safe there and are open to physical abuse and being robbed. Sleeping rough for young people can mean couch surfing or staying at different friends’ places each week, or sleeping in cars if they have one.

There are also young people who might stay up all night at well-lit 24-hour places like McDonalds, Crown Casino or bus stops, and then find a place to sleep during the day. They tend to go to places where no one can identify that they’re homeless, as safety and security are a big issue for them.

What other public misconceptions surrounding youth homelessness do you think it’s important to dispel?

Young people who experience homelessness can be individuals, they can have children, be in relationships, or they can be young couples. They come from a range of diverse cultural backgrounds too – it isn’t just one type of person.

I think there’s a misconception that young people leave home just to get Centrelink. It’s absolute nonsense. There are a huge number of hurdles in getting Centrelink payments for young people. And Youth Allowance is just over $400 a fortnight – they’d be lucky to make rent and cover utilities and living costs.

I think another common misconception around young people is that they abuse substances or are in gangs and so forth. We find that most young people we see don’t use illegal substances.

Some people may use alcohol or cannabis as a way of self-medicating distress and trauma, but you have to remember that a lot of young people don’t know how to access the mental health system.

All they know is that life is feeling dreadful and they’re feeling alone, but they don’t know that they could be experiencing depression or anxiety or trauma. They don’t know how to get help and they use alcohol or drugs to deal with it.

It’s up to us to assist them in developing other coping strategies, to take them to a GP to get a mental health plan done. Even something as simple as a balanced nutritional diet makes a difference.

What can we do for the young people in our everyday lives who might be at risk of homelessness?

Young people are very honest, so I’d say to ask them directly about how they are going in a non-judgmental way. How are things at home? Do you need somewhere to stay other than at home? Would you like assistance or someone to talk to?

The important thing is to let them know that there is support for them and that someone is looking after their interests and wellbeing – that someone’s got their back. If they’ve experienced long-term trauma in their life and they’re in a crisis situation, it’s very distressing and can lead to mental health issues.

What else should we remember when trying to help young people at risk?

We know that if we provide young people with a level of support, they’re more likely to remain engaged at school and connected to their local community. Considering the trauma, distress and instability they experience in their life, young people have a huge range of strengths, resilience and ability to succeed.

They have their own hopes and dreams for the future and it’s very important for agencies like Hope Street and the wider community to collectively support young people to achieve amazing things. It is possible. We’ve seen it happen many times with the right support – people finishing high school, going into university or TAFE and getting jobs. Homelessness is just one part of a young person’s experience, it certainly doesn’t define them for the rest of their lives.