June 11, 2024

Counting the cost: The shocking scale of youth homelessness in Australia

Not everybody is good with numbers.

Many of us are no good at all.

We all need them and use them every day, but it seems the higher they get, the more difficult they are to comprehend. Which can make it hard to explain to many that 47,871 children and young people living without a stable home is a disgracefully high number.

Yet this is the number the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded in the 2021 Census.

47,871

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare also reports that in 2022-23, around 38,300 young people (aged 10-24) sought help from homelessness services unaccompanied by a parent or guardian.

Again, a number almost impossible to comprehend.

Imagine a classroom of 25 students.

Now try to imagine 1,532 of those classrooms.

That’s how many young people were seeking support from homelessness services by themselves.

It’s unfathomable. And most likely an underestimate, particularly considering the younger cohort of 10-14 years (of which more than 3,000 sought help) would not necessarily be inclined to reach out to a specialist homelessness service.

For a country as affluent, as well-resourced and as socially conscious as we’d like to believe Australia is, we simply can’t accept the number of young people who aren’t getting the help they need. It’s absolutely critical that stable accommodation options and tailored case management is delivered the moment any risk has been identified.

“The adults you see who are sleeping rough, in shelters or moving from place to place are more than likely to have first experienced homelessness as a young person.” Stephen Nash is CEO of youth homelessness charity, Kids Under Cover. “Half of the adults you see sleeping rough today first experienced homelessness when they were young”, he says.  “When you’re young, it’s soul destroying. It’s not a choice. And it’s a cycle that can be really hard to break without the right support.”

The negative impact of homelessness is simply devastating and often causes life-long damage to health and wellbeing, and educational and life opportunities. The younger someone is when they become homeless, the more likely that they are to become caught up in child protection, justice, health and mental health crisis, and entrenched in adult homelessness and associated crisis systems. Of the adults who first became homeless when they were young, only 57% had reached year 10 at school – robbing them of fulfilling their potential. Our collective sector goal should be ending homelessness, a critical component of which must be to intervene as early as possible and stem the flow of people becoming entrenched in the adult homeless population.

“Half of the adults you see sleeping rough today first experienced homelessness when they were young… it’s soul destroying. It’s not a choice.

One of Kids Under Cover’s solutions is to provide studio accommodation for young people in the backyard of their family or carer’s home. The extra space helps ease the tension within an overcrowded or unstable home environment, offering sanctuary from a stressful environment without removing the young person from the care they need or the community that supports them. There are currently around 1000 young people living in a Kids Under Cover Studio across Victoria and South Australia.

“This is just one thing we can do to try to reach these kids early and prevent them leaving home before they are properly prepared. Our studio program has had great success in keeping families together and shifting the trajectory for young people who might have been headed down a dangerous path. But it’s not nearly enough. As a sector and as a society, there is so much more we need to do.”

One of the most troubling facts is the number of people who simply can’t access the help they need. Of the 71,962 people who were turned away from homelessness services in 2021-22 due to overwhelming demand, over 22,000 were young people under the age of 18. Yet another number impossible to imagine and a snapshot of the shortfall in capacity of services available to assist this critical cohort.

Stephen Nash says there is a lack of planning and early support for those at risk. “The key to ending homelessness is preventing people from entering the cycle to begin with,” he says. “There needs to be a far greater focus on identifying risk factors and reaching the right people early. Whether it’s conflict resolution support, extra space for overcrowded households, effective guardianship and care; whatever it takes. We have to work harder to stop the flow at the source.”

The figures are clear, they’re deeply concerning and they are not decreasing. The reasons young people experience homelessness are many and varied, and in most cases, they differ from the reasons behind adult homelessness. So any strategy that hopes for real impact will need to be specifically designed for and with guidance from young people.

As families feel the tightening grip of living costs and a national housing crisis, we again turn to governments to implement change. Because to this point – as the numbers show – not enough is being done.

Homelessness Australia Child and Youth Homelessness fact sheet