July 31, 2023

We need a national child and youth homelessness strategy. And we need it now.

A standalone National Child and Youth Homelessness Strategy is vital to preventing Australia’s children and young people from becoming homeless

The 2023 National Child & Youth Homelessness Conference saw industry experts and thought leaders share valuable insights and engage in collaborative discussions with the common goal of ending youth homelessness.

The theme for last week’s 2023 National Child and Youth Homelessness Conference was ‘It’s Time’ in reference to the long overdue need for a renewed commitment to a national plan to address youth homelessness.

The conference saw the convergence of an impressive list of leading voices from the sector including government ministers, academics, NGO executives and advocates with lived experience. Speakers covered issues from social housing and innovative support models to early intervention, overrepresentation, and the role of government.

Australia’s first Human Rights Commissioner, Professor Brian Burdekin, AO, was a prominent voice at the conference.

Australia’s first Federal Human Rights Commissioner, Professor Brian Burdekin AO addressed the conference and referred to his ground-breaking 1989 report on the National Inquiry into youth homelessness, since which there has been little – if any – improvement.

Professor Burdekin received an emotional standing ovation at the conclusion of the conference from sector leaders acknowledging his decades of commitment and legacy.

Youth homelessness in Australia continues to be a persistent and complex challenge, however, recent years have seen a shift towards consolidating support services with a wholistic strategy and making sure young people are better represented, particularly those who have experienced homelessness or who face the prospect of living without a safe and stable home.

The statistics around youth homelessness highlight a crisis scenario. One in six young people, aged between 15-19 years old in Australia have already experienced homelessness at some stage in their lives (Source: Mission Australia ‘Staying Home’ Youth Homelessness Report).

And of the 122,494 people estimated to be experiencing homelessness across Australia during the 2021 Census, near a quarter of those were only 12-24 years old. Further, in 2021, children under 18 years old made up 21% of the total homeless population in Australia (Source: Australia Bureau of Statistics, Census 2021).

Professor Brian Burdekin AO, delivering his keynote address to attendees at the conference.

Lived experience mentor, Brea Dorsett described how the homelessness service system might improve were it designed collaboratively with those who need to access it.

“We wait until it’s too late. We don’t intervene when a young person is at risk of homelessness. Until they are experiencing homelessness, until they are couch surfing, when they are sleeping rough and when they are unsafe. So, I think we need start having these conversations earlier.

What does a safe home look like? What to do if you’re not in a safe home? I do think it’s really important for regional and rural communities that we start to develop stronger relationships and partnerships with one another – really working together strategically. And maybe a central hub or resource online showing what services are available in what areas and what the eligibility criteria is.”

MP Zali Steggal, OAM, attended the conference virtually to join a panel session alongside her Federal colleagues, Dr Monique Ryan, Senator David Pocock, and Max Chandler-Mather to talk about the national approach to ensuring affordable housing for young people.

A persistent theme through the discussions was the need to develop a national plan to address child and youth homelessness. Trish Connolly is CEO of Yfoundations and is committed to pushing the case for a stand-alone strategy and to bringing the issue to the forefront of public and political discussion. “I think in the last couple of years there has been a groundswell of people coming together to try to consolidate on the issue of child and youth homelessness. It’s certainly changed since I’ve been in the sector for over 17 years. I think we need a campaign. I think the only way that we can change anything like this is to get the issue into people’s faces…

A panel discussion on key themes for policy and advocacy to keep youth homelessness on the political agenda.

“When I talk to community members or to friends or just anyone who ask what I do and I tell them what’s going on in this country, they can’t believe it. Because they don’t know.

So, I think a campaign is one thing. And I think the other thing is if we can start advocating strongly together to call on the government to develop a stand-alone child and youth homelessness plan…

This needs to be something the Australian public get concerned about and we need to be pushing for a stand-alone strategy. There will be people who say, ‘you’re not going to get that’ and I want to say, ‘get out of my way.’ I’m not going for the chapter; I’m going for the stand-alone plan and I’m not stopping til I get that.”

Another common theme that emerged over the two-day symposium was that the current support framework relies too heavily on a critically overburdened crisis response system. And that there needs to be a concerted shift to allocate resources towards early intervention and prevention networks.

According to the CEO of Kids Under Cover Stephen Nash, a longer-term vision that identifies well-trodden pathways to homelessness and innovative methods of diversion is the only way to make significant inroads.

“On my way through the city coming to this session this morning and seeing all those rough sleepers back out on the streets of the city was just a shocking thing to contemplate. Knowing that half of them first became homeless when they were young. And we know that we can end rough sleeping and have proven that during Covid, but now the political imperative has shifted.“

Kids Under Cover CEO, Stephen Nash, with Professor Brian Burdekin, AO.

“I was thinking about the statistic that for a young person who has been in out-of-home care, it’s 10 times more likely that their children will also live in out-of-home care. We talk about early intervention, but we need to talk more about prevention – working with that young person to ensure the risk of homelessness happening is removed and they have a much brighter life

For me early intervention is really about just turning off the tap, stopping people flooding into out-of-home care wherever possible. Stopping people flowing into adult homelessness and a life of connection with high-cost emergency services and lost potential. That’s what we should be doing, and we can do better.

The sector is doing a lot of great work, but it is piecemeal. Kids Under Cover houses one thousand young people every night in Victoria. We’re just one of many models and it’s not suitable for every situation obviously, but that’s a seriously great thing that’s happening…

The examples are there, we just need to develop a national strategy and the right resources to make sure we end this problem.”

Thank you to our friends and partners across the sector, for collaborating on and participating in such a meaningful two days of discussion and connection at this conference – we continue to have a shared goal of helping young people to thrive. A special thanks to our colleagues at Youth Development Australia for organising the National Children and Youth Homelessness Conference, and in particular to Keith Waters for his incredible commitment and leadership.