Youth homelessness matters, but are you more ignorant about the issue than you realise?
Homelessness, it's a big problem affecting the lives of many young Australians, with almost half the homeless population under the age of 25.Given that children and young people make up such a large percentage of this group, why then don’t we see them sleeping in cardboard boxes and begging for money on the street? Well sometimes you do, but for the most part, homelessness is widely misunderstood and many myths and stereotypes surround the issue and are greatly perpetrated by the media. In reality, though, only 6% of the homeless population actually sleep on the street and not many of those people are young people.Having worked extensively with homeless youth, I’ve noticed some patterns which I think are worth sharing and that might help us better understand and respond to the needs of young people experiencing homelessness. 1. Young people are very good at hiding the fact they are homeless. Couch surfing is a popular sleeping arrangement among homeless youth, making it difficult for us to ‘see’ this form of homelessness and therefore, know how many young people are actually affected by the issue. Using drugs and alcohol to stay awake and going on ‘benders’ is another way that many young people disguise their homelessness. Of course, this isn’t the case for all, but a lot of the young people I’ve worked with have reported using this strategy to stay awake when they have no safe place to sleep.They blend into a crowd. It might surprise you, but many homeless young people have a smart phone, a good quality or branded outfit they have invested in, opportunities to shower at friends’ places or youth drop centres etc. and therefore, you wouldn’t notice them in the same way you might notice someone who is more visibly homeless. In fact, I've often seen my homeless clients out in the community but if I didn’t know them and their story, I’d have no idea they were homeless. 2. They usually maintain relationships with familyMany people assume that those experiencing homelessness are completely estranged from family. Whilst this may be the case for some, many homeless young people have relationships and contact with their family. There are a variety of reasons why living with family is not possible or appropriate for many homeless youths, however, this doesn’t mean they don’t or shouldn’t have contact with the family. In fact, maintaining these relationships is often a positive and significant protective factor for homeless young people. 3. Although only young, many homeless young people have experienced long-term homelessness and therefore need high levels of supportEarly intervention has an important role to play in addressing youth homelessness. However, for many homeless young people presenting at homelessness services, this is not their first experience of homelessness. Unfortunately, instability and no safe place to call home has been the reality for many homeless young people their entire life. I once worked with a young man who was 17 and when we looked carefully at his history, we realised he had been homeless since he was 3 months old. Unfortunately, the opportunity for early intervention has long passed for many homeless young people. In fact, some young people like the one mentioned above will have been homeless for longer periods than those deemed the ‘long-term’ & ‘entrenched’ homeless and yet, I think we assume this is not possible because of their age. What is perhaps most concerning for this cohort of young people, is the lifelong impact that homelessness can have on them if they're not properly supported. Experiencing ongoing and repeated episodes of homelessness, often alongside other traumatic events, is particularly problematic because its happening at a time most crucial to a person's development; childhood and adolescence. Homeless young people from this background, therefore, require more intensive and therapeutic support services to help them recover and rebuild their lives and if we're serious about ending youth homelessness, then we need to create and fund services that do exactly that.