Young people are couch surfing in widespread numbers, with little formal support or protection.
This is an edited version of WEst Justice’s Shorna Moore remarks as she launched her new report, Couch Surfing Limbo, which pulls back the curtain on their plight.
The Couch Surfing Limbo report looks into the experiences of young people who are couch surfing, and the experiences of couch providers, identifying legal, policy and service gaps, and ways forward. It highlights several challenges and makes several recommendations.
Today, I will speak about three key findings, a handful of the recommendations exploring the following areas:
- Firstly, young couch surfers have fallen through the gaps in the homelessness, child protection and family violence systems.
- Secondly, youth couch surfing is not recognised under the law and there is a lack of legal and policy protections for these children and young people.
- Finally, ‘couch providers’ are also falling through the gaps.
The majority of laws, policies and services expect children and young people to behave like adults. Laws often expect teenagers to navigate complex systems to enforce their rights. And more often than not, services expect children and young people to approach them for support, rather than the other way round.
The Couch Surfing Limbo project began in 2014, with extensive consultation of over 50 organisations, including all levels of government, community services, schools and the private sector.
The Youth Couch Surfing Clinic, over a nine-month period, assisted 62 young people under the age of 25 who were couch surfing, mainly in Wyndham. The clinic was run in schools, welfare agencies and social housing.
Some schools were aware of up to 20 students at any one time who were couch surfing, but expected there to be more.
Due to the transient nature of couch surfing, there is no reliable way of estimating its prevalence. The length and nature varies. For some it is chronic, but others episodic. What this research shows is that it is widespread. Some schools were aware of up to 20 students at any one time who were couch surfing, but expected there to be more.
The majority of clients fell into the following groups:
- School students, generally year 11 and 12, experiencing family violence at home
- Single mothers and pregnant girls escaping family violence.
Falling between the gaps
The young couch surfers (all 62 of who were escaping family violence) continuously fall through gaps in the child protection, homelessness and family violence systems.
Some reasons why:
- They did not consider themselves to be homeless or victims of family violence.
- They did not want to spend time in refuges, preferring friend’s houses where they felt safe and ‘normal’.
- In most cases, child protection services won’t pick up kids 15 years and over.
- Most family violence services are funded to work exclusively with women. Children are assisted when they attend a service with their mother. The adolescent victim has been overlooked.
- The Family Violence Intervention Order system is set up for intimate partner violence. Young people don’t want to make an application against their parents.
Worst still, many services are not designed for them. Many government and community services expect young people to behave like adults and provide services to children in the same way they do for adults, generally in the same space.
Couch Surfing Limbo recommends that as a matter of urgency, the Victorian Government must increase the level of funding to specialist family violence, homelessness and legal services to provide targeted youth support programs.
In designing youth programs it is important to make sure they are age appropriate. For example, delivered in schools, flexible, staff with specialised youth skills, available after 5pm or on weekends.
These are some of the ways we can help prevent young people from falling through the gaps.
Being recognised under the law
Youth couch surfing is not recognised under the law, even though it has been defined as a form of secondary homelessness. Young people are not considered adults, but not given the same protection as children.
Our research highlights three main areas for law reform.
As couch surfers are legally licensees, they are often told they must leave the house immediately without any notice, and it is very common for possessions to be left behind. The Youth Couch Surfing Clinic saw clients who were unable to retrieve their clothes, phones and even wallets.
When possessions are left behind, it is considered a small property dispute and the couch surfer must lodge a claim in the Magistrates’ Court, with high fees and formalities. It was no surprise our clients did not want to enforce their rights.
We recommend these matters should be heard in a Tribunal at VCAT.
The second area in need of reform is the social security system, which is causing significant harm for young people who are couch surfing.
The Youth Couch Surfing Clinic assisted several people struggling to deal with Centrelink. Common issues included:
- Accessing youth allowance.
- Centrelink debts – Some had up to $120 taken automatically from their fortnightly payment.
- Exploitation of Family Tax Benefit by parents and some couch providers.
Difficulties accessing social security was one of the most significant issues people faced. The Youth Allowance is only available to those over 18, unless they can prove independence.
To be eligible for the ‘Youth Allowance Unreasonable to Live at Home’ benefit, the young person must have left home permanently, even though it’s widely recognised couch surfing can begin at an early age and will often present with a young person sleeping at friend’s houses for part of the week.
Young couch surfers experiencing family violence and transitioning out of the family home are still considered dependent.
Another finding concerns young New Zealand citizens aged 15-18, living in Australia. We saw a number of clients who had arrived in Australia, were not entitled to income support, were unable to live at home due to family conflict and were forced to couch surf, relying on loans from friends and charity. Returning to the Pacific Islands or New Zealand was not an option for them as they had no connections there.
The consequences, especially for young women and girls, are shocking. The inability to access Youth Allowance meant they did not have a safety net and were left open to exploitation and abuse. The clinic saw young girls forced into serious intimate relationships to keep a roof over their head.
So what we have are 16 and 17-year-olds, who are considered too old for child protection and cannot access Centrelink. And we expect them to continue to go to school.
The clinic saw young girls forced into serious intimate relationships to keep a roof over their head.
The Federal Government must re-examine the eligibility criteria for the ‘Unreasonable to Live at Home’ benefit to ensure these young people do not fall through the gap. New Zealand citizens must also have access to this benefit.
Public transport and fines
The final area in need of law and policy reform is the public transport system.
Most young people use public transport to go to school and socialise. For young couch-surfers in the outer urban area of Wyndham, access to public transport means a lot more. It is a means to access education and services, and to escape family violence and move between houses to find somewhere safe to sleep.
However more clients of the Youth Couch Surfing Clinic sought assistance with transport fines than with any other issue.
Most were secondary school students, and all were experiencing family violence. They had very little, if any, financial support from their parent(s), no access to Centrelink benefits and were unemployed.
Most fines were incurred on the way to and from school, as well as travel between different houses where they were sleeping. The fines created further conflict in the home and made the couch-surfer’s situation worse. Furthermore by fare evading, young couch-surfers could come into conflict with Authorised Officers, bus drivers and other transport users. Without a compliant pathway for travel, couch-surfers will continue to incur fines, creating further anxiety and disengagement from their education.
Following extensive consultation with public transport operators, it was agreed that rather than looking at ways to identify and excuse non-compliant travel by this cohort, it would be more desirable to find a way to assist couch surfing youth to travel compliantly while they are most in need.
So for some good news, WEstjustice, in partnership with The Public Transport Ombudsman, have developed a transport-education pilot, a new pathway of compliance for young couch-surfers who are without income and rely on public transport to get to school.
The pilot is supported by a Steering Committee, which includes representatives from Transport for Victoria, PTV, DET and Wyndham City Council.
It will begin in 2018 and be delivered through three pilot secondary schools in Wyndham. It will involve distributing myki cards to the wellbeing department at each school, which will work with and support the students. The provision of a myki card will bring temporary relief while the school supports the young person out of homelessness.
We would like to especially thank Wyndham City Council, Metro, Yarra Trams, Transdev and BusVic for their support in funding the pilot.
We have found that couch providers, individuals and families who are opening up their homes to look after young couch surfers, are also falling through the gaps.
Couch providers or ‘informal carers’ are the unknown element in the couch surfing relationship. There has been very limited work done to identify and assist them. In fact, there is no service to assist couch providers at all.
What is clear from our research is couch providers are responding to deficiencies in the homelessness, family violence and out-of-home care systems. In fact due to the low level of funding, housing and homelessness support workers are often forced to advise the young person to ‘find someone to stay with’. However, providers were not interested in becoming foster parents as they preferred to keep the arrangement with the young person informal.
We identified four broad categories of couch providers: friends, parents of friends, family, and strangers.
The ‘good’ couch providers were friends’ parents, extended family and caring community members. These informal carers genuinely wanted to help the young person, providing a roof, food, care, money and safety. However, as mentioned earlier, couch providers in Victoria have no helpline, service, support or information about their rights and responsibilities. Many feel unsure about how to assist a young person, especially if they are experiencing family violence, trauma, health or legal issues. Many said their local church or faith group had provided them extra funds and emotional support.
However, there are also ‘bad’ couch providers involved in crime, drugs, prostitution and illegal rooming houses, exploiting and abusing young couch surfers for their own ends. For example, some couch providers get the Family Tax Benefit instead of the parents, promising to buy food and essential items but then reneging on this. Some are ‘in the business’ of taking young couch surfers in, convincing the school into supporting applications to Centrelink.
The Clinic also heard stories involving sexual abuse and exploitation of young girls who were couch surfing and taken advantage of by people they were staying with. However the majority would not make reports to police. Reasons include guilt for couch surfing and that they wouldn’t be believed.
It is important to make clear that the couch providers engaged by this project were all genuine couch providers and the recommendations in this report are made to support only this group of informal carers. Without adequate housing and a lack of out-of-home care options, supporting a safe and caring couch surfing relationship is a good way to keep young couch surfers safe and off the streets.
In response, the Department of Health and Human Services must fund programs which offer information and support to couch providers.
I would like to acknowledge the work being done by Whitelion and Lighthouse Foundation who have committed to working with WEstjustice in developing a new and innovative pilot program to assist couch surfers and couch providers in Wyndham.
We can do better. We want to keep these children off the streets and safe.
In conclusion, as mentioned, I have spoken to only three of the key issues in the Couch Surfing Limbo Report. There are many others, so, I encourage you all to read the report.
We can do better. We want to keep these children off the streets and safe. There are many practical ways to help them but we need to first make sure that our laws, policies and services are not expecting children and young people to behave like adults.
*This is an edited excerpt of Shorna Moore’s speech at the Couch Surfing Limbo report launch.