Homeless young people need the means to flourish


Young people on footpath with signs 'Where did you sleep last night?'Wednesday 9 April is Youth Homelessness Matters Day. We customarily see homelessness as the end of the road. It is the life chosen by people whose life of separation from society has led them to prefer to live without a place to call home.

From this perspective youth homelessness seems particularly shocking because it affects people who are beginning their adult lives. It seems too soon for them to cut their connections with society. So in their case we come quickly to see homelessness as a problem to be solved, and to be moved on from.

But the reality is that very few people, young or old, choose to be homeless. They may accept it as their inescapable condition. But most would prefer a safe place to which they could return regularly as their home. The fact that in a wealthy society so many people are homeless may make us ask whether it is acceptable for anyone to be homeless in a wealthy society. It speaks of priorities that have gone awry.

Homelessness is an indictment of society because it marks a lack of connection, the necessary glue within any society. If a society allows people to be disconnected through homelessness it at least shows a lack of awareness of its own core business.

The importance of home is shown by the cultural resonance of words like house and home. They connote deep patterns of relatedness through time, as when we speak of the house of the Windsors or of the Packers. They also speak of firm connections to place, developed though metaphors of roots, of footprints left on soil, of memory enshrined in stone. Without a home we are disconnected, transient, immaterial, unearthed.

These may seem to be large words to describe simple, everyday realities. But they suggest how important the connections associated with a place of residence are in ordinary human living. For individuals to lose connections through homelessness is a tragedy; for them to be homeless involuntarily indicts a society of carelessness; for young people to lack accommodation is a mark of wanton callousness.

In the case of young people, homelessness is not only the symbol of disconnection but also its consequence. If young people choose to leave home, it is usually the least bad of their options.

Most homeless young people have escaped a very difficult home life. They may have lived under the shadow of violence, been rejected by their parents and partners, lived in unstable homes where alcohol and drug abuse was common. They left to escape a dangerous, unpredictable and loveless home and a dysfunctional family. Others may have been unable to return home after spending time in juvenile justice centres.

Experiences of this kind explain why it is so hard for them to find stable accommodation. Today there is little investment in public housing, and it is a challenge for anyone to find rented accommodation. It is doubly difficult for young people who may be physically ill, suffer from mental illness or addiction. They lack the experience, financial resources and required documentation to negotiate the rental system.

So curing homelessness is not simply a matter of finding homes for disadvantaged people, It is about enabling and fostering the connections for whose lack they have been made homeless. This is a challenging task requiring love and constancy as well as skill, coordination and dedication.

Given their background of family dysfunction, broken schooling, physical and mental illness, addiction and isolation, homeless young people may have come to the attention of many government departments: Human Services, Health, Justice, Education and Housing, to name a few. Typically, representatives of each department entrusted with their care will intervene in their lives with a tightly focused agenda.

For all the good will involved, the effect of piecemeal interventions is to confuse young people who feel themselves the object of care, not the subject of their own growth. They are best helped by a relationship with a single person who can build an encouraging relationship with them as persons with many needs and who can help them access the different services they need.

That kind of personal care is necessary if they are to find and keep a home. But to access services and to build steady relationships you need an address and so a home. So the need for social housing for those who most need it is a condition for a good society. A thought for governments as they plan budgets.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Image from Youth Homelessness Matters Day

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, homelessness



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Nearly two decades after Brian Burdekin’s 1989 report, Our Homeless Children, David Mackenzie and David Edridge reported in 2008 that youth homelessness had doubled despite general prosperity and falling unemployment. The cause they said was the fallout from three decades of social and economic changes including no-fault divorce and single parenting, yet apparently few people seriously want to reverse these social changes. Their only solution was more government money. Our society wants the counterfeit freedoms of the Sexual Revolution without the consequences, and has rejected Christian morality which was the cornerstone upon which our society had been built. Simple behavioural changes which cost the community nothing are ignored, while communal strategies that cost billions are promoted. The Greeks knew that without a moral order, no other order, whether social, economic or political was possible, just as the American Founding Fathers knew their constitution would only work if the people possessed virtue. Ireland’s Minister Simon Coveney was asked recently whether the Celtic Tiger economic failures represented mainly a moral failing in the Irish nation or a problem in banking policy. He said it was a moral failing. We certainly need affordable social housing, but that alone won’t solve the problem.

Ross Howard | 08 April 2014  

I recently did some work distributing food for people in need in the Pines estate in Frankston north. The pines estate was once a large housing commission estate, over the years most of the houses have ben sold to private owners. Now many of the houses originally built to house people in need are used as rooming houses with up to 10 people in one house with one toilet, one kitchen and each room let out at $180 per week. Frankston now has the 6th highest level of homelessness in Australia. What can one do? Pope Francis has said "God does not reveal himself cloaked in worldly power and wealth, but rather in weakness and poverty" he said "We Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take some practical steps to alleviate it"" My practical steps is to go to another Christian group called CityLife and try to make contact with people living in rooming houses, with the view to assisting them to form housing cooperatives. Some of the men without permanent housing live along the foreshore in swags and tents.

Kevin Vaughan | 08 April 2014  

Given the homelessness of both our own people and also that of the refugees, perhaps consideration could be given to the kibbutz style of settlement suggested by Bob Hawke some time back.

Robert Liddy | 08 April 2014  

Good morning, Andrew. Again you have drawn our attention to another of the most tragic truths of our dysfunctional society. Some years ago the College of Surgeons in this country established a committee (of which I was chairman) to investigate domestic violence, a major contributor to ill-heath and trauma to individuals in the modern world. A major focus was homeless children. Fr Chris Reilly was a major contributor to this investigation since his experience with street kids in Sydney was the only one of any substance in Australia at that time with genuine statistics. Fr Reilly indicated that in fact the vast majority of street kids did choose homelessness, because "they felt safer on the street than in their own "family homes". Further, most had sought refuge on the streets because of violent abuse in the home, sexual abuse in 90% or so of cases. Broken schooling, physical and mental health issues, drug addiction and both hetero and homosexual prostitution were secondary features of their plight rather than causes of their homelessness. Although government was involved with the College of Surgeons in seeking solutions to all forms of violence and its health consequences government took no notice of the College's recommendations other than the recommendation to control guns. It was the only suggestion capable of winning votes. Homelessness remains one of the enduring indictments of this society and will remain so until good people act like Fr Reilly who has been very successful in salvaging the lives of many young people for God and Humanity. Don't hold your breath, though, in the hope of improvement. There are still no votes in spending large amounts of money on the downtrodden in this Godless, mongrel society. Many of ES's correspondents decry the inhumanity of Australia's refugee policy - kindergarten stuff compared with our societal response to these poor, abused young children of Australia itself, the world's greatest "fair go country" in the world according to our own advertsiing brochures.

john frawley | 08 April 2014  

This most pressing of Australian social problems seems to be slipping further down our attention scale as asylum seekers occupy minds. Also so many areas of disadvantage are located in non swinging seats.Special bands of trained people properly resourced eg teachers/social workers are needed to redirect so many of these people--ask father Riley!!Andrew thanks for getting this issue in the spotlight

Brian | 08 April 2014  

'They are best helped by a relationship with a single person who can build an encouraging relationship with them as persons with many needs and who can help them access the different services they need.' These are wise words, thank you! The micro is inherently more challenging than the macro, as 'we' have an immediate stake in the response. A quite recent piece of long-term research on youth and the challenge of gaining and keeping employment similarly demonstrates the primacy of 'relationship' in that process; its findings reveal ‘just how important parents and peers are in relation to young people's aspirations’: http://www.lsay.edu.au/publications/2711.html ... Wouldn't it be great if as a society comprised of individuals we opened our lives to include and support younger people in ways that are not exploitative or predatory? That openness surely comes from recognising that, just as we were helped when we were young, we too have a duty of care to support emerging generations.

Barry G | 08 April 2014  

An immensely sane and insightful article, Andy. To me Australian society is really in danger of disappearing down the gutter of rampant materialism from which it will be extremely difficult to re-emerge. Youth homelessnesses is one of those moral lightning rods brilliantly illuminating where we currently are. The fractured delivery of assistance through manifold agencies who all have a limited area of responsibility does not help. The one-on-one assistance model you mention, with adequate funding, could be a genuine circuit breaker, especially if the agency or agencies involved had a genuine and holistic approach to the problem. Whether government or private they will need to be adequately funded and resourced and not given narrow "targets" to achieve. They will also need to concentrate on helping people. The model to be avoided is the Commonwealth Government's Job Network, which, for a number of documented reasons, is an unmitigated disaster. This should not be seen as a money making venture as some Job Network providers seem to regard that system.

Edward Fido | 08 April 2014  

Those are very wise words indeed. One of the great difficulties is finding ways for caring adults to connect with young people in need although we could contact a local youth agency and offer support through mentoring projects such as, "Big Brother, Big Sister." I totally agree that that this is an issue too much ignored by too many of us. Thank you for reminding us of the challenge and need.

Robert | 08 April 2014  

Oh dear, I'm afraid I must take issue with Andrew Hamilton's assessment of the homelessness situation. He is right to mention the factors, such as domestic-violence and mental-illness, that prompt many people to "choose" to be homeless, but I fear his repeated use of the word choice is an old chestnut that places the onus-of-responsibility for homelessness on the shoulders of homeless people rather than the environment in which they find themselves. No mention here of the role played by Australia's artificially-inflated housing-market, or the fact that the ABS doesn't even mention it in its 62-page-long definition of homelessness. Blinkers off, please.

Nick Costello | 08 April 2014  

Thank you for drawing attention to this problem. Disempowerment, frustration, the loss of a sense of purpose and the loss of self-esteem lead only to negative consequences, which include self-destructive behaviours, resentment and rage that are then directed against others and can take the form of vicious attacks or other crimes. This serves to accelerate the downward spiral, and make rehabilitation even more precarious and unlikely. We are all the losers in this situation, unless we as a society resist the temptation to ignore it, and the apathy that postpones doing something effective to intervene. This dysfunction in our well-being as a society is not going to go away until it is addressed at its source. Homeless youth do not have the resources, individually or collectively, to remedy it. Governments, it would seem, lack the will. Those whose lives and potential are languishing on the streets are at the mercy of those who are in a position to initiate change for the better, yet remain silent and inactive.

Jena Woodhouse | 09 April 2014  

Thanks Andrew. Really challenging work.

Bob Simpson | 11 April 2014  

Homeless including youth homelessness is a severe indictment on our society. The welfare system has largely failed these people begging an alternate response. That is seeing homeless people as individuals with incredible worth and gift. Changing our own mental perception of people who find themselves homeless, will fundamentally change the way we seek to come around them. Andrew mentions a relationship with one person who can help the homeless person negotiate the system, whilst I don't doubt the value of this, I think it may be only one aspect of a way out of homelessness. A couple of years ago my organisation P4T did some work on youth suicide, 4 important words emerged that if present positively effect the social environment for young people; connection; belonging; purpose; meaning. And so the question becomes how do we facilitate a response that increases these factors. One way is to begin to bring a community of genuinely loving people around those experiencing homelessness, to begin to recreate the village. Governments can't do this, on their own services can't do this, however people who choose to become sensitised to the pain around them and commit to make a difference can.

Andre | 11 April 2014  

I head a small NGO in Lilydale called Holy Fools that engages with the homeless in the Shire of Yarra Ranges. While the majority of our work is with those sleeping rough, we assist anyone experiencing any form of homelessness. Our LGA has no crisis accommodation, and until recently, a Council that would not publicly admit we had homeless issues. Rough sleepers are the (near in)visible tip of the iceberg; the majority of those experiencing homelessness are our youth. Those who are often couch-surfing and “staying with mates” don’t recognise themselves as homeless. In fact, this is often overlooked at schools, sporting clubs and within families. We have a severe affordable housing shortage in the Shire, but our issues are not going to solved by housing alone - homelessness is more a symptom and less a cause. As a community we need to identify and provide avenues of help for families and our youth that don’t lead to crisis. The recent closure of TAFE and other higher-education services hasn’t helped. Until we, as a Community, recognise our youth as valuable contributing members, and offer support and channels such as further-education, we are failing our kids, and families.

Neal Taylor | 11 April 2014  

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