Youth and child homelessness matters, why aren’t we doing more about it?
4 May 2022 at 5:46 pm
Affordable housing for young Australians falling through the cracks is possible with greater federal investment, argues Deb Tsorbaris.
It’s difficult to imagine, but on the night of the most recent 2016 census, over 116,000 people identified as homeless in Australia. That’s an MCG full of people with nowhere to call home.
More than a fifth were children: a shocking illustration of the reality far too many children and young people face in Australia today.
One cohort of young people particularly vulnerable to experiencing homelessness are those leaving out-of-home care. With no parents or guardians to fall back on, and limited government support once they have left care placement, a huge number of these young people find themselves with nowhere to go but the streets.
Fortunately, the future looks brighter today than it did in 2016, thanks to changes in public policy brought about by the Home Stretch campaign, which fought tirelessly to extend the provision of accommodation allowance and flexible funding for care leavers to age 21.
This gives young people in care far greater stability – and a place to call home for an additional three years. In 2021, the Victorian government announced it would fund Home Stretch, giving young care leavers time to find their feet, and set themselves up for adult life.
Most states and territories have committed to extending care to 21 in some capacity, and this will have a positive impact of reducing homelessness among care leavers in the future. But, the fight to keep young people off the streets is far from over.
Although commitments targeting care leavers are necessary, there remain holes in public policy that continue to allow young people to slip through the cracks, onto the streets.
The reasons for homelessness are complex and intersecting: they include a lack of family support, an entanglement of family violence, substance misuse, and mental health problems. This interplay of factors renders homelessness a wicked challenge for policy makers, complicated further by the interface of state and federal governments that have overlapping roles in their duty to support young people.
At a state level, the commitment to extend care for care leavers will be a significant in-road to successfully support their steps into the next stage of life.
Last year, the Victorian government also announced an investment of $50 million in new housing projects for young people experiencing – or at risk of – homelessness in Victoria, shielding all young people, including those not in care, from the threat of homelessness.
Despite these bright spots, deeply rooted issues remain. Housing availability and rent prices are becoming a major problem across the country. In the year to December 2021, rents across Australia increased 9.4 per cent while wages grew just 2.3 per cent. In regional Australia, the squeeze has been tightest, with rents increasing 12.1 per cent in the same period. These eye-watering increases are putting even more young people at risk of being priced out of the rental market.
Yet federal funding for social housing is in decline. Governments play a significant role in the housing market yet – remarkably – social housing was barely touched upon in the 2022-23 budget announced earlier this month.
The federal budget did include some short-term measures to address cost-of-living pressures, but these will be of little consequence to people who struggle to survive on social security payments that are below the poverty line. One-off payments tend to create short-term impact, and do not substitute much-needed systemic policy changes that could create sustained and meaningful change.
Investment in social housing and the provision of adequate rent assistance and income support to those who need it pays for itself many times over. Importantly, keeping people off the streets and in homes is the right thing to do, and something all governments should strive to achieve.
The Victorian government’s investment in the Big Housing Build, which is set to increase social housing in Victoria by 10 per cent, showed palpable commitment to accommodating Victoria’s burgeoning population at a state level.
For the target number of social housing properties that is required to be feasibly met, the federal government should work to match, or exceed, this investment. The federal government could also increase Commonwealth Rent Assistance, to ease the financial pressures of those in precarious housing positions.
Whilst considerable progress has been made to address the issue of homelessness amongst care leavers, this is just one piece of the wicked puzzle.
As a sector, we will continue advocating for access to housing, an increase to social supports, and policy changes that positively impact the lives of young people who’ve had system contact.
Everyone deserves access to affordable and stable housing, and in a country like ours, we have the power to make that happen.