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The cost of youth homelessness in Australia Analysis

The cost of youth homelessness in Australia

In this guest blog, Dr Monica Thielking, Research Fellow at Swinburne University, takes us through the recently released report, The Costs of Youth Homelessness in Australia: Snapshot Report 1: The Australian Youth Homelessness Experience. This ground-breaking study into the experience of young people in Australia who are homeless offers some profound insights about how young people end up in homelessness.

Too many young Australians are without any form of safe and secure accommodation. Homelessness is one of the most severe and frightening forms of disadvantage and isolation that a person can experience. In 2013–14, 17 per cent of all clients (44,414 people) accessing specialist homelessness services were young people (aged 15–24) who presented alone. The majority were female (63 per cent) and 78 per cent were aged between 18 and 24. At the beginning of support, 27% of young people who presented alone were ‘couch surfing’ or staying in housing with no tenure. Most common reasons for seeking assistance were housing crises (16 per cent); domestic/family violence (15 per cent); inadequate or inappropriate dwelling conditions (13 per cent); and relationship/family breakdown (13 per cent).[1]

The ‘on any given day’ graphic, produced by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is quite a startling realization, for those who are not familiar with this issue, of the extent of homelessness in Australia. A problem that is as much hidden as it is misunderstood.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. Specialist homelessness services: 2013–2014. Cat. no. HOU 276. Canberra: AIHW.

The Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia research study is the first national youth homelessness study of its kind in Australia. The study attempts to understand the experience and impacts of youth homelessness, in personal, social and economic terms.

Up to 300 homeless young people in Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and Queensland, and up to 100 disadvantaged but not homeless young people (for comparison purposes) were surveyed over three consecutive years. Data was gathered about their childhood, their family relationships, the state of their health and their life in general.

Recently a selection of findings from Wave 1 results was released in The Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia Snapshot Report 1: The Australian Youth Homelessness Experience. The study highlights the fact that homeless youth, in many cases have experienced difficult early lives, which have contributed to their future trajectory into homelessness. In particular, the study confirms the very strong relationship between homelessness, foster care and other out-of-home care arrangements, as well as family violence and conflict within the home. The results have particular relevance in light of the current Royal Commission Into Family Violence, in terms of impact on children.

Out-of-home care experienced prior to turning 18 was another indicator correlated with homelessness, with two-thirds homeless young people having been in out-of-home care arrangements. This clearly indicates that the transition from out-of-home care into stable independent accommodation is an area of policy and service delivery requiring significant attention – what is it about the system or the group that means that being placed in out-of-home care will, more often than not, lead to homelessness?

The Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia: Snapshot Report 1: The Australian Youth Homelessness Experience, p 15

Key findings included:

  1. Over half of young people under the age of 25 receiving support from homeless services slept rough at least once prior to turning 18. The most dominant form of homelessness among young people is couch surfing.
  2. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of homeless youth surveyed had been placed in some form of out-of-home care by the time that they had turned 18.
  3. Over a third (39%) of homeless youth reported police coming to their home because of violence between parents on one or more occasions, with 14% experiencing police coming to their house more than 10 times.
  4. The prevalence of mental health conditions is high among homeless youth with 53% reporting that they had been diagnosed with at least one mental health condition in their lifetime. Mood disorders and anxiety disorders are the most prevalent disorders among homeless youth.
  5. High levels of psychological distress are evident among homeless youth and quality of life outcomes are considerably lower than for the general population.
  6. The incidence of reported non-suicidal self injury and attempted suicide is much higher among homeless youth than young job-seekers.
  7. Fifty-two per cent of homeless youth were unemployed at the time of interview, that is, they were without work yet reported that they were looking for work and available to start work.
  8. A lack of permanent accommodation and experiencing poor health or having a disability was identified by the homeless support group as affecting their ability to find work.


Furthermore, two-fifths of homeless respondents experienced police intervention in the household due to extreme conflict between parents, with more than half of the homeless group reporting that they slept rough before turning 18 years of age. Around one-quarter of those who ran away from home due to violence between parents went to relatives, 32% went to friends while 20% went to the street or park (slept rough). The results begin to shed light on the impact of family violence on children’s outcomes, especially in relation to homelessness, and highlights the need for strong early intervention programs for families and children and a sustained effort to curtail this insidious social problem.

The Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia: Snapshot Report 1: The Australian Youth Homelessness Experience, p 15

The Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia Snapshot Report 1: The Australian Youth Homelessness Experience is the first in a series, which outlines the findings from the first wave of data collection. It provides a brief account of the depth of problems that homeless young Australians experience. The findings clearly underscore the seriousness of youth homelessness as a social issue in Australia and the need for community and government action over this pressing problem.

The results clearly highlight the need for better programs of early intervention that identify young people at the most earliest ‘running away from home’ stage, preferably targeting those who are still at school and still at home, but are dealing with family conflict of some kind. With support for both young people and their family perhaps homelessness can be averted for many who find themselves in the situation where they lack the coping skills to deal with problematic child-parent relationships.  Furthermore, the high incidence of mental health problems in this group not only show the impact that homelessness has on psychological wellbeing, but the need for comprehensive and high quality mental health services to be provided to young people in an accessible and timely manner.

Policy makers should be seeking to increase services that improve within-family issues, that keep young people in schools and that provide housing first and mental health services to those young people who are at risk and who find themselves facing homelessness. The fact that so many of our sample had been in out-of-home care and had not transitioned succesfully into independent accommodation,  as well as a significant number reporting they had slept rough prior to turning 18 are both very unacceptable findings. Finally, our study sheds light on the impact of family violence on children, efforts allowing victims of family violence and their children easy access to safe and secure long-term accommodation so that the stress of homelessness is eliminated, should be a strong priority.

The second report will examine the economic costs of homelessness and will be launched in late 2015.

The Costs of Youth Homelessness in Australia project is an ARC Linkage led by Swinburne University in partnership with The Salvation Army, Mission Australia and Anglicare NSW South, NSW West & ACT. The research team consisted of Prof. Paul Flatau (UWA Centre for Social Impact); Dr Monica Thielking (Swinburne University of Technology); Assoc. Prof. David MacKenzie (Swinburne University of Technology) and Prof. Adam Steen (Charles Sturt University); with research assistance from Alicia Bauskis (UWA CSI) and Kathleen Nolan (Swinburne University).

[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2014. Specialist homelessness services: 2013–2014. Cat. no. HOU 276. Canberra: AIHW