Australia – the lucky country. A nation where, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than 116,000 people are homeless.
And while that’s what the statistics say, those working at the front line believe the number is closer to 300,000 – and that about 100,000 of those are youths.
Every night, young people who are living on the street are exposed to the risk of violence, sexual assault, hunger and the cold.
You might not know it wondering our city streets but, earlier this year, Australia was ranked as the seventh-best country in the world to live, according to the US News Best Countries rankings.
The gap between rich and poor is widening
It has long been reported that the gap between the wealthy and poor is ever increasing, and the biggest victims are our most vulnerable – our young people, our elderly and our mentally ill.
For our youth, the effects of homelessness can be lifelong, leading them down a road to drug and alcohol abuse, and even crime. And then there are the costs to society – Swinburne University estimates the annual cost of health and justice services for homeless youth in Australia at $626 million.
The organisation Kids Under Cover says the idea that young people become homeless by choice is a misconception. It reports that underlying issues leading to the streets are complex and varied – some have come from environments where there is poverty, neglect, abuse, unemployment, substance abuse, health complications, disability and mental illness.
A disproportionate number have been traumatised and abused.
Limited government support
Many troubled youth have spent time in foster care.
However, the responsibility of Foster Carers in our state ends at 18, meaning that much of the financial and social services support provided by the government ends too. If the foster family can no longer afford to care for the young adult, they may have no choice but to take to the streets.
Their future is often bleak – within a year of their foster care ending, many will go on to experience homelessness and unemployment. Some will become teenage parents or fall foul of the law.
Overseas foster care models
While some states provide outreach services to help integrate young people out of foster care and into their communities, many would argue that these programmes are not widely effective. There have long been calls to extend the age of Foster Caring until 21.
In the USA, Canada and New Zealand the foster care models provide an option to extend care for the young person until the age of 21. The programmes have overwhelming established that by providing just three more years of support for these young people to further mature and get a firmer grip on life, they have a far greater chance of becoming gainful members of society.
Indeed, statistics suggest that where this reform has been implemented, youth homelessness has halved, and engagement with education has doubled. Longer term, the statistics suggest a decrease in intergenerational disadvantage, less hospitalisations, fewer arrests, and lower rates of alcohol and drug dependency.
Many believe young people need more than just a roof overhead, they need stability and secure foundations of a family – albeit a foster family – as they face the world.
As Kids Under Cover explains, those on the streets may find it difficult to participate in the community in a meaningful way as simply finding ways to survive becomes a life-long struggle.
Hope on the horizon
But while young people are overrepresented in the nation’s homelessness statistics, some positive change is underway, with both the Tasmanian and South Australian governments legislating and funding the extension of foster care to age 21.
There are now calls for other States and Territories to follow, and thereby give disadvantaged youth a better start to their adult lives.