It’s common for people to think that all homeless people sleep on the streets. But rough sleeping is only a small part of the problem of homelessness. Homelessness is about not having a home, which means having a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety and the ability to control your living space.
When a young person becomes homeless (either because they have to leave home or their whole family becomes homeless) they might stay temporarily with friends, family or people they don’t know very well. This is often called ‘couch surfing’ which might sound harmless, but in reality, you don’t have your own space, privacy or security and it can also be dangerous.
Most young people who are homeless are living in a ‘severely overcrowded’ house and often that means having to crash on the couch or the floor or sharing a bedroom. A severely overcrowded house is one that needs four or more extra bedrooms to house everyone living there properly.
Young people’s alternatives to couch surfing are emergency accommodation in refuges, government-funded transitional housing, rooming houses, hostels or motels. Some young people who become homeless might have to sleep rough in squats, cars or public spaces for a period of time.
Homelessness does not just mean sleeping rough on the streets. There are three different types of homelessness that are used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics¹ and these are considered the standard cultural definition of homelessness in Australia.
Primary homelessness includes all people without a ‘roof over their head’. This means people who are living on the streets, sleeping in parks, squatting in derelict buildings or using cars or trains as temporary shelter.
Secondary homelessness includes people who frequently move from one type of shelter to another. This includes people living in homeless services, hostels, people staying with other households who have no home of their own and people staying in boarding houses for 12 weeks or less.
Tertiary homelessness refers to people who live in boarding houses on a medium to long term basis (more than 13 weeks), who live in accommodation that does not have ‘self-contained facilities’ for example they do not have their bathroom or kitchen and who don’t have the security provided by a lease. They are homeless because their accommodation does not have the characteristics identified in the minimum community standard for housing.
We often hear the reference to ‘street kids’ but in fact most homeless young people are invisible to us. This generally means that they are temporarily staying with friends, relatives, family and sometimes with complete strangers. These young people will often be sleeping on couches or on the floors of these people’s houses until they outstay their welcome and move on to the next place – hence the couch surfing term.
Young homeless people do not need rough sleeping initiatives alone but rather they need effective access to accommodation, family reconciliation services and community support and education programs to prevent homelessness.
Almost one in three homeless Australians are children and young people under the age of 25.
There were 7,682,424 children and young people aged 0-25 who were homeless on Census night in 2016 across Australia. Broken down, there were 3,539,497 children under 12; 1,952,767 children and young people aged 12-18; and 2,190,160 young adults aged 19-25.
Between 2006 and 2016, the proportion of young people aged 15–24 experiencing homelessness increased from 0.7% (or 18,500 young people) in 2006 to 0.8% (or 24,200) in 2016. In 2016, this cohort – 15 to 24-year-olds – made up 21% of the homelessness population.
Specific strategies to address child and youth homelessness are critical to the overall reduction of homelessness in Australia
There are a variety of reasons why children and young people become homeless that are often outside of the control of the young person. The general public often has a view that young homeless people are run-aways and could really return home if they wanted to. In reality many young people become homeless due to family breakdown, family violence and child abuse.
In 2020/2021, 31% of homeless young people identified interpersonal relationship problems including family violence and relationship breakdown as the primary reason for becoming homeless. The next most common reasons was experiencing a housing crisis (18%) and living in inadequate accommodation such as overcrowded housing (12%).
Many young people find it difficult to be approved for leases due to the high demand on rental properties and discrimination against young people. There are also issues around overcrowding and the cost of housing that cause young people to become homeless.
Homelessness affects all groups of people and we know that young people who are indigenous, are from a single or blended family, have been homeless as a child or have been in statutory care, are at greater risk of homelessness.
The community needs to stop judging homeless youth as delinquent and create opportunities for young people to not become homeless or to access long term housing.
Work with us towards a society where all young people are valued, engaged and supported.