Young People at Risk of Lifelong Poverty: Youth Homelessness in Australia

Australians were recently listed as the richest people in the world (Credit Suisse 2013). Australia has indeed been considered a ‘lucky country’ since its ‘discovery’ by white settlers around 250 years ago. In a context of relative plenty, the face of poverty in Australia is often in shadow, rarely glimpsed by the middle classes, physically or statistically. Poverty was once starkly manifest within the high-rise public housing estates in inner city areas. However, these are now disappearing (unmourned) from the metropolitan landscape. Their absence means, of course, that poor children and families are often hidden from view. Capital cities that once merged relatively gracefully with the coastline now relentlessly invade rural areas. It is on these metropolitan margins that many of our poorest citizens are housed. Some too, are re-located to regional towns and cities, where housing is much cheaper. Others remain, of course, inner urban fringe dwellers.

Too often, our fringe-dwellers are without stable housing. Australia’s poorest communities, like most others in the western world, lack adequate infrastructural support systems and are burdened by high rates of family breakdown. Domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse, child neglect and abuse, mental illness, unemployment and housing problems are major contributors to homelessness. In this context, young people are often at risk, unprotected and unsupported (Homelessness Australia 2015; Australian Homelessness Clearing House (AHCH) 2014; Open Family 2014). It can be unsafe for them to remain within their family of origin. At times, family conflict is extreme and young people are directed to vacate their parents’ home(s). In other instances, young people are statutorily removed from home by child protection authorities and placed in foster or residential care. Often, this too, breaks down, especially by mid-adolescence. Care leavers are at even higher risk of youth homelessness than other young people in the community, even when compared with those who have grown up in serious disadvantage, including long term family homelessness (CREATE 2014). Without stable accommodation young people usually find it impossible to attend school, training or employment regularly (Open Family 2014).

The links between poverty and homelessness are powerfully interactive. Notwithstanding the country’s obvious affluence, Australia’s child poverty rate lies at the middle of international rankings. UNICEF’s 2007 report on child poverty in OECD countries reveals that Australia had the 14th highest child poverty rate (UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre 2007). Lack of housing and limited access to education in childhood and adolescence puts young people at heightened risk of poverty. This often leads on to enduring adult experience of poverty. The longer a young person is homeless the more likely they are to embark upon a life of adult homelessness and poverty. Mental health issues and substance abuse often increase the length of homelessness. Thirty-five percent or more of those who become homeless as teenagers can still be homeless as adults (Chamberlain and Johnson 2013; Johnson and Chamberlain 2008a). Poverty, including family poverty involving children, unsurprisingly impacts on young people’s perceptions of their own wellbeing and that of those around them. Surveying European children and adolescents Bradshaw et al. (2011) found strong associations between the different domains of subjective well-being – especially personal well-being, family well-being and school well-being. Just as youth homelessness increases risk of poverty, in both short and longer term, poverty clearly impacts on ability to secure stable housing. A third of people presenting to specialist homelessness services also require financial assistance. More than three quarters of those supported by specialist homelessness services are in receipt of government benefits of some kind. For young homeless people there are often delays and interruptions to such financial support; having ‘no fixed address’, discontinuity in educational placements and lack of experience in negotiating formal support systems can contribute to this. More than 10 % of people in specialist homelessness services have no source of income at all (Homelessness Australia 2015). This chapter describes contemporary patterns of youth homelessness in Australia, along with some promising intervention programs. It suggests areas for further research.

14.2 Defining Youth Homelessness

The accepted statistical definition of homelessness among all age groups in Australia includes several elements defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS):

When a person does not have suitable accommodation alternatives they are considered homeless if their current living arrangement:

  • is in a dwelling that is inadequate; or

  • has no tenure, or if their initial tenure is short and not extendable; or

  • does not allow them to have control of, and access to space for social relations. (ABS 2012d)

The ABS definition of homelessness is informed also by cultural understandings of what it means to be homeless.

‘Home’lessness, not rooflessness. It emphasises the core elements of ‘home’ in Anglo American and European interpretations of the meaning of home as identified in research evidence (Mallett 2004). These elements may include: a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety, and the ability to control living space. Homelessness is therefore a lack of one or more of the elements that represent ‘home’. The definition has been constructed from a conceptual framework centred around the following elements:

  • Adequacy of the dwelling;

  • Security of tenure in the dwelling; and

  • Control of, and access to, space for social relations. (ABS 2012d)

In defining youth homeless herein, all of the ABS categories are included: from young people literally without a ‘roof over their head’ to young people whose accommodation lacks minimum community standards for housing. The levels of permanency and privacy afforded within their current housing are especially important considerations when assessing the adequacy of a young person’s living situation (ABS 2012a, c, d). However, neither statistical nor cultural definitions appear to have adequately facilitated accurate identification of what actually constitutes youth homelessness and how many young people are homeless. Young people can be moving around, staying overnight with friends and acquaintances, often returning home intermittently. Those who are ‘visiting’ or ‘couch surfing’ on Census Night can often be obscured in homelessness statistics. Their homelessness is obscured because, for many, their profile is little different from many other youth who are not homeless but are simply visiting on Census night. ‘Couch surfers’ (McLoughlin 2013) can often be masked from identification as a homeless young people, perhaps because they prefer not to disclose to the people they are staying with that it is not possible for them to return home, or that:

…the person who fills out the Census form on behalf of the young person staying with them assumes that the youth will return to their home. Homeless youth will be underestimated within the group: ‘Persons staying temporarily with other households’. ABS has not yet been able to establish any reliable way, with existing data sources, of estimating homelessness among youth staying with other households and for whom a usual address is reported in the Census. Service providers and researchers have indicated that the estimates of homeless youth derivable from Census data do not concord with their knowledge about youth homelessness. (ABS 2012c)

The ABS has taken steps to redress under-enumeration. A promising recent initiative is a scoping to platform a nationally representative homeless school students’ survey (ABS 2012c). School student homelessness is apparent to many welfare service providers and those in the secondary education sector, especially school counsellors and principals. It is, however, ill-defined and often masked from view within the broader Australian community. Even in affluent private schools, students are sometimes placed informally with families in the school community, in the hope that a family crisis might ‘settle’ and the young person will be able to return home. In tertiary education youth homeless is also difficult to define and identify. In the author’s experience students are often reported by security staff to be sleeping in cars on campus or spending nights in the library. This is not formally defined as homelessness.

For the purposes of this Chapter, the age range of homeless young people is identified as 12–24 years (ABS 2012d; Open Family 2014). Whilst some definitions of ‘youth’ refer to the 18–24 age bracket, this would not appear to realistically represent normative access to accommodation within the family home. In contemporary Australia, many young people live in the family home will they are in their mid-twenties. When they are engaged in long courses of tertiary study, it is not uncommon for young people to approach 30 years of age and still be living at home.

14.3 Counting Homeless Youth

Census figures remain inaccurate, despite recent attempts at refinement. This remains the status quo, notwithstanding the fact that Australia holds one of the longest track records in the western world for compulsory census programs (Commonwealth of Australia 1905). Homelessness statistics have been actively sought within Australia’s five yearly census counts since the middle of last century (AHCH 2014). More recently, vigorous pursuit of accurate youth homelessness figures has been specifically targeted by the ABS (2012d). This is actively supported by the Homeless Statistics Reference Group (HSRG) established in 2011 (AHCH 2014) to guide improvement of measurement and analysis of homelessness statistics; the HSRG includes sector representatives, academics and government officers.

The ABS conducted the last Census of Population in 2011 (ABS 2012b). Everyone in Australia (who participated) was counted, on the night of 9th August 2011, including people experiencing homelessness. This included:

  • People living in hostels and refuges;

  • People without a usual address staying temporarily with friends or family, and those in temporary accommodation (e.g., motel, hotel or night shelter);

  • People living in a single room, with no kitchen or bathroom of its own, in a private unlicensed boarding house; and

  • People ‘living rough’ on the night of Tuesday 9th August 2011.

For ‘rough sleepers’, the Census administrators engaged temporary officers called Special Collectors to go to places where these homeless people, including young homeless, can often be found. The Census administrators recruited some workers and volunteers from homeless services as Special Collectors, as well as people who were homeless at that time or who had been homeless. All people they encountered who had ‘no usual address’ were encouraged to answer ‘None’ for the question ‘Where does the person usually live?’ on the Census form, regardless of where they were staying that night. The Census officers worked closely with service organisations to locate boarding houses, refuges and hostels and accurately count the people staying in them. This collaborative approach seems to have developed, in part, from the work of the Homelessness Statistics Reference Group and identifying both adults and young people hitherto less likely to be accurately counted as “Absolute Homeless” (ABS 2012c). The approach was considered innovative internationally. It appears to have been relatively successful in improving the accuracy in counting homeless people, including homeless youth, within Australia (Table 14.1).

Table 14.1

Homeless Persons 2006,2011





Rate per 10,000 of the population



Rate per 10,000 of the population

Age group (years)

Under 12





















Total homeless persons






















Indigenous status















Not stated







Not stated

Total homeless persons







Source: Census of Population and Housing, 2001, 2006, 2011, AIHW SAAP collection

Notwithstanding their acknowledged limitations, ABS census data, and that derived from the Special Homelessness Data Collection, are generally accepted as the most reliable sources of information on Australian youth homelessness. However, considerable caution should clearly be applied in interpreting census figures, particularly given limitations and discontinuity of data collection approaches over time. This must contextualise our examination of the most recent ABS 2011 Census data, when it was estimated that around 43 % of the total homeless population in Australia was under the age of 25 years (ABS 2012c; AIHW 2012a, b). The figures collected at that time suggest that the number of young homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population aged 19–24 increased from 75.4 in 2006 to 88.0 in 2011. Figures suggest a slightly lesser increase in those aged 12–18 years from 51.1 in 2006 per 10,000 to 55.9 in 2011.

The number of homeless people aged 12–24 years counted in the two most recent Census statistics increased from 21,943 in 2006 to 26,239 in 2011, an overall increase of 4,296 young people or 7.9 %. It would appear that young people aged between 12 and 18 have, for some years, been the single largest group experiencing homelessness in Australia (ABS 2012a).

Whilst ABS census data is often presented as currently the most reliable sources of information on Australian youth homelessness, there is an alternative view. It has been suggested by some in the sector that the most realistic way to estimate youth homelessness may be to look at levels of help-seeking by young people presenting to Specialist Homeless Services (SHS) (AIHW 2013). The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) coordinates Homelessness Data Collection. SHS provide client information to the AIHW through an online reporting mechanism called the Specialist Homelessness Online Reporting (SHOR). This new data collection approach was established only in 2011, but holds promise for future estimation of youth homelessness. Of the requests made for assistance in 2012–2013, 45,000 were initiated by young people aged between 15 and 24 years (AIHW 2013). This constitutes an estimated 20 % of the total homeless population and is a considerably higher figure than the ABS Census data. Sixty three percent of those seeking help were female. It is important to recognise that many young people who are homeless do not seek assistance from SHS which suggests that these figures are likely to be a considerable underestimate of the total in need (AIHW 2013; YFoundations 2014).

14.4 Profile of Homeless Youth

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. National Youth Coalition for Housing, NYCH (2014)

Around 45 % of homeless young people identify interpersonal relationship problems including family violence and parent/adolescent conflict as the major cause of their homelessness. Other common reasons are accommodation problems (18 %), including being evicted or unable to find suitable accommodation and financial problems (14 %), such as inability to pay rent or other financial difficulty (AIHW 2012a). Many young people fail to be approved for rental leases due to high demand and landlord reluctance to contract with young tenants. Overcrowding and the cost of housing can result in young people becoming homeless. Young people who abuse substances, are from a single or blended family, have been homeless as a child or have been in statutory care (including youth justice facilities), are at greater risk of homelessness (CREATE 2014; NYCH 2014; Daley and Chamberlain 2009; Johnson and Chamberlain 2008a). The Victorian homelessness support service Open Family in Melbourne reports that teenage pregnancies, young people becoming parents early in life, renewed and increasing economic pressure and substantial population growth without supporting infrastructure are major contributors to contemporary youth homelessness (Open Family 2014). Gay, Bisexual, Lesbian, Transsexual, Intersex and Queer (GBTLTIQ) young people often face extreme stigma and prejudice at home and in the wider community that exacerbates their risk of homelessness (Oakley 2013; Gay and Lesbian Taskforce 2006). Asylum seeker and refugee young people on ‘Bridging’ or other visas often fear deportation and ‘disappear’ from residential support services frequently joining the ranks of the homeless (Refugee Council of Australia 2014).

Australian evidence (AIHW 2013) appears consistent with Canadian research which suggests that age-adjusted mortality of homeless young people is two- to eightfold greater than the housed population. In addition, they more often suffer from psychiatric disease, mental and physical disabilities and the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse, including violence, sexual exploitation and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV and hepatitis C (Turnbull et al. 2007).

The AIHW concludes that in 2011–2012 in Specialist Homelessness Services across Australia:

  • 34 % of clients were escaping domestic or family violence (18 % of male clients and 44 % of female clients); 28 % of clients who were escaping domestic or family violence were children aged under 15

  • 19 % of clients who received assistance in 2011–12 were young people aged 15–24 who presented to a specialist homelessness agency alone

  • 19 % of clients were identified as having a current mental health issue (not including alcohol or other drug use), with similar rates for male and female clients (21 % and 19 % respectively)

  • 2 % of clients had recently left (or were about to leave) a care setting such as a hospital or residential care facility

  • 2 % of clients had recently left (or were about to leave) a custodial setting such as a correctional facility of detention centre (AIHW 2012b)

Without powerful interventions, at-risk and homeless young people appear to be far more likely to transition from youth to adult (chronic) homelessness (Chamberlain and Johnson 2013; Johnson and Chamberlain 2008a, b). Young people living with serious mental illness or whose parents have a mental illness and those who have an intellectual disability are at higher risk of homelessness (Chamberlain and Johnson 2013). Young women are overrepresented (by 50 % in some instances) amongst homelessness help seekers (Melbourne City Mission 2014; YFoundation 2014). The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) estimates that the cost to the community of a person being homeless from mid-adolescence to death is $2 million (AIFS 2013).

One of the few cross-national comparisons of Australian homeless youth and others internationally was conducted by Milburn et al. (2007) in Melbourne, Australia, and Los Angeles, CA, United States. Newly (n = 427) and experienced (n = 864) homeless youth were recruited from each site. This study found that compared to Australia, homeless youth in the United States were younger, more likely to be in school or jail, demonstrated fewer sexual and substance use risk acts, fewer suicidal acts, and reported less need for social services. Further research is needed to determine the service system implications of these findings.

Johnson and Chamberlain (2008a) bring depth to the profile of homeless young Australians with rich qualitative data. The voices of the young people themselves deliver a poignant narrative of the lived experience of youth homelessness in twenty-first century Australia:

Most people also reported that sleeping rough resulted in a drop in their self-esteem. According to John:

I looked like a real rough nut … didn’t brush my hair, never had showers. I looked like a street person I suppose … looked disgusting and everyone could see I’d changed. I ended up staying in this building. It had nothing in it, it had a mattress, it had no electricity.
Others tried to avoid being seen by the public because they did not want to be negatively judged. Sarah told us:

I remember one time … there was somebody walking their dog … I was so embarrassed. She must have known we were sleeping in the car, so that’s when we started to move around.

14.5 Homeless Indigenous Youth

The ABS reports that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, including young people, have been under enumerated in the Census and suggest that any appraisal of homelessness based on Census data will almost certainly amount to an underestimation (ABS 2012a). Chamberlain and MacKenzie (2008

Only gold members can continue reading. Log In or Register to continue