My parents kicked me out of home when they I told them I was pregnant. I thought that, by moving to the city, I would have access to many support services. I soon realised that without my connections to friends and family, everything was so much harder than I expected. I was terrified about my future, I visited the Doctor and told him about my situation. He put me in contact with the local Aboriginal youth service, where I was able to reconnect with my community. I also met other young mothers through their parenting program. With the support of the youth service, I am now excited about my future and the future of my son.Jia, 16
It is vital that all young people are given the opportunity to develop and nurture the connections in their lives. Connections to friends, family, community and society promote resilience and social inclusion. The development of positive connections during the formative stages of childhood and adolescence enables a young person to build a strong positive foundation and prepares them for adult life.
A young person cannot successfully end their experience of homelessness without a strong support network. Connections are key determinants of the health and wellbeing of children and adolescents 1. It is important that young people have the ability to preserve and nurture these connections. The ‘Connections’ foundation refers to any positive connection, which may include family, friends, support workers, a mentor, work colleagues, or members of a group (community, cultural or spiritual). The foundation also refers to those connections between services and government agencies that work with young people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Connectivity, participation and cooperation significantly influence human well-being. Groups of individuals working together are, on average, safer, stronger and more efficient than individuals working alone.
The Connections foundation is concerned with belonging. Being linked to and associated with, someone, something, or some physical or spiritual place, through a common element. A connection to a physical or geographical community, sporting, cultural or spiritual community, may foster the development of moral actions such as honesty, altruism, and caring2. Belonging implies being part of something and could refer to something physical or metaphysical. The idea of social inclusion is also intrinsically linked to Connections, as it refers to the need to be able to participate in society and feel valued3. Social isolation and disconnection is said to be equally as threatening to young people as tobacco use in terms of mortality4.
Resilience is an important component of the ‘Connections’ foundation. Research indicates that connectedness and belonging fosters resilience. Resilience in young people reduces health risks such as problematic substance abuse and promotes positive social and emotional health5. For example, young people may still experiment with drugs however positive connections and feeling a sense of belonging reduces the likelihood that young people will maintain illicit substance use on a permanent basis. Factors that promote resilience are family connectedness, peer connectedness and fitting in at school.6
The importance of family connectedness (defined as closeness to parents, perceived caring, satisfaction, feeling loved and wanted)7 has been widely recognised within academic literature. It is identified as one of the most powerful protective factors in the lives of adolescents 8 against unhealthy risk behaviours including emotional distress, suicide, violence, substance use, early sexual debut and pregnancy. Strong bonds between parents and adolescents protect youth from engaging in health risk behaviors, particularly when parents recognize, value, and reward pro-social9 behaviors10. Adolescents typically look for parental guidance during this stage of their life11.
However, in the absence of a positive parent, other connections are still vital in providing the necessary support and guidance to young people, as they offer a secure environment in which young people have the freedom to learn and explore. For example, a strong mentor can be a hugely beneficial connection for a young person. Mentoring affects youth through three interrelated processes: (1) by enhancing their social relationships and emotional well-being, (2) by improving their cognitive skills through instruction and conversation, and (3) by promoting positive identity development through serving as role models and advocates12.
Many low socio-economic youth have limited contact with positive role models outside their immediate family and believe opportunities for personal success to be limited13. Further, a young person’s determination of global self-worth is based not only on their self-evaluation of competence in activities they consider to be important, but also on their perception of acceptance, support, and regard from significant others.14 A mentor’s positive appraisal therefore becomes incorporated into the mentee’s sense of self.
Connection to community is another significant network for young people. It has been associated with lower levels of health risk behaviours and higher levels of pro-social behaviour. Connection to community can encompass other groups outside one’s physical community. ‘Community’ can encompass a group of people that share a common interest or spirit. These groups may be concerned with spirituality and faith, education and training or sport and hobbies. These connections contribute to positive and healthy adolescent development15.
So what do connections mean to a young person experiencing homelessness? And are they considered important?
Often young people tell us (Yfoundations) they have found family on the street, in a way they have not experienced before. “There’s a certain bond between all of us. There’s a whole community of us where everyone knows everyone and they’re all like trying to help each other” (17-year-old female). Whether the connection is romantic, companionship or protective, these relationships are intense for young people and incredibly important. It is therefore vital that these connections are respected and supported. Young people must be given every opportunity to nurture existing connections and encouraged to develop new ones. At the same time it is recognised that belonging to a community of the homeless can have negative impacts on some young people. For example it can increase the risk of drug and alcohol misuse, criminal involvement and of becoming entrenched in homelessness16.
Young people have told us that sometimes they feel as if their relationships are not considered as important as adult relationships because of their age. Yconnect staff frequently receive information from young couples regarding the difficulty in finding suitable housing, for either temporary periods or longer term, within Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) or the private rental market. Young couples and young families are sometimes forced to separate due to the shortage of housing options available for couples. While this may be in part due to limited housing and resources, it is important that the relationships of young people are always considered when making decisions about their welfare. It must always be asked, “Are we always respectful of the relationships and connections of young people and is this reflected in our work? How are we making every effort to support the connections this young person already has? What are the implications for the young people if they are forced to separate? We may also need to think about how we can access and support young people who prefer couch surfing because of the connections they may feel it provides – either through family connections or being able to stay with friends17.