FR WALLY DETHLEFS, a youth advocate in Brisbane archdiocese for many years and a commissioner on the inquiry, writes about the crisis.
JOE (not his real name) left home for the final time with a heavy heart when he was just 15 years old.
For Joe life at home was hopeless and chaotic. It was a place where hate, violence and abuse were the norm. He had previously left home on a number of occasions, initially when he was just 13.
When he could not stay at home he would stay at friends’ houses, sometimes telling his friends’ parents about what was happening at home, mostly, however, making up a story in order to sleep over for a night or two.
He’d tried the youth shelter twice before, but it was always full and there was a waiting list. He’d also tried the Child Safety Department a couple of months previously, but they said he was too old.
Where could he go that was safe? How would he feed himself?
Joe also wanted to keep going to school. He liked school, but he had no place to wash his uniform, no place to do his homework.
Sadly, there’s no help at hand for teenagers like Joe when youth refuges turn away young people every night because there’s just no room for them.
The youth refuge system in Australia is tragically over-stretched. Last year one Brisbane emergency refuge turned away 1187 requests for accommodation.
Another Brisbane service for young people with high and complex needs accommodated one young person out of every 10 who requested accommodation.
In far north Queensland only three out of every 10 girls who applied for accommodation were successful.
Being homeless is difficult for anybody, but for a child or teenager it’s a traumatic experience and can often lead to mental health problems.
Joe’s story is among far too many that I heard around the country as a commissioner on the National Youth Commission Inquiry into youth homelessness – the most significant of its kind in 20 years.
We held 21 days of hearings in all states and territories. Formal evidence was given by 319 individuals and we received 91 written submissions.
Australians would be shocked by our findings which were released on April 8. The report reveals the problem of youth homelessness in Australia has doubled in less than 20 years for teenagers.
There are now 22,000 young people aged 12 to 18 years among the 100,000 homeless across Australia, compared with an estimated 8500 to 10,800 in 1991.
The report says that young people cite a breakdown in their relationship with their parents or step-parents as the main reason for their homelessness.
It calls on the Federal Government to allocate an extra $100 million in its first term to address shortfalls in services for the homeless, on top of the $150 million pledged during the recent election campaign. The report calls for an extra $1 billion overall in the next decade.
In addition to the serious shortages in supported accommodation assistance for teenagers and young people, the substantial increase in rents means many young people are unable to exit crisis, medium and long-term accommodation or, when they do, it is onto the streets and homelessness.
The housing situation of indigenous young people is even more desperate.
“The situation we find in central Queensland at the moment in Townsville, Rockhampton, Gladstone and Mackay, is putting accommodation beyond the reach of young people,” an Aboriginal Youth Housing worker from central Queensland told the inquiry.
Maybe Joe could have got a job? While unemployment figures have dropped dramatically in the past 10 years, youth unemployment rates are running at about three times the national unemployment figures.
The bulk of the growth in employment for young people has been in part-time and casual employment, making it difficult for independent young people to sustain accommodation in the private rental market.
As one homeless young man said at the Brisbane hearings, “You need to be able to get the job to be able to get the affordable accommodation. You need somewhere to live to be able to get jobs.”
Another told the inquiry, “I got one job when I was on the streets but I had nowhere to shower. It doesn’t work at all.”
Is there any good news for young people like Joe?
Early-intervention programs like the Federal “Reconnect” program and Queensland’s “Youth Support Co-ordinator” program are making a difference in reuniting families, finding accommodation and assisting at-risk young people to remain in education.
In 2001, Queensland had one of the higher rates of youth homelessness in the nation with 18 homeless young people out of every 1000.
In 2006, this rate was reduced to 11 per 1000 mainly as a result of early-intervention work.
If Australia can find a billion extra dollars for solutions to water shortages or new fighter planes for our Air Force, surely we can spend as much on saving kids’ lives.
We need to roll out early-intervention programs across the country to provide full national coverage for at-risk young people and their families.
We also need to solve the extreme shortages in existing drug, alcohol and mental health services for young people.
All we have in Queensland is five beds in an adolescent detoxification/rehabilitation program for young people and not many more specific adolescent mental health beds.
It’s time we all faced up to Australia’s failed social policy on tackling youth homelessness; the shameful reality is that there are now 22,000 teenagers – kids aged 12 to 18 – without a home to go to on any given night in Australia. We must act now. Because one homeless young person like Joe in a country like ours is one too many.
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
The Catholic Leader acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of this country and especially acknowledge the traditional owners on whose lands we live and work throughout the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.