Children are emerging as the new face of homelessness in Australia. Children in homeless families are now the largest single group who seek support from the homeless service system. In 2009-10, the homeless service system supported more than 84,000 children plus an additional 23,000 young people aged 18 or under who approached a service without a parent or guardian. Although high, the real number of homeless families and children in need of services is likely to be much higher, as these numbers only capture people who have either gained or tried to access a service.
Youth Off The Streets founder Father Chris Riley estimated up to 47,000 people under the age of 21 were unaccounted for in the main cities. ”These kids have no stability,” Father Riley said. ”A young person may be attached to relatives and friends outside of their immediate family, but they can wear out their welcome very quickly. They are as homeless as those on the streets, but just less visible.”
He said people did not realise couch surfing was a form of homelessness. ”Kids may have a bed to sleep in or a couch, but no one makes them go to school, no one makes sure they’re fed. If a kid doesn’t have a nurturer then they are homeless.”
Children and young people become homeless for many reasons. Many are driven onto the streets due to domestic violence and/or relationship breakdowns, whilst others become homeless when their families lose their homes due to a lack of affordable housing, wage poverty or other structural problems.
While the reasons for becoming homeless can vary for young people and children, their experiences once homeless tend to follow a similar path. Sadly, once homeless children often remain homeless or in unstable housing for long periods of time. They are also more likely to drop out of the education systems, with two thirds of young people leaving school within 12 months of becoming homeless.
Even if they manage to continue their education children who are homeless:
- spend less time in school than other kids;
- may move schools up to 5 times per year; and
- are more likely to leave school altogether.
The early years of life are a crucial period of development for children. Safe and stable living environments ensure children’s long-term wellbeing, the fulfilment of their potential and strong, healthy communities. Children who experience repeat periods of homelessness often suffer developmental delays and emotional difficulties.
In addition, children who have been homeless are more likely to have been victims of crime, and to have been involved in criminal activities. Many homeless children have experienced or witnessed domestic violence, have been victims of other crime, or have been involved in criminal activities themselves.
There are many physical and psychological impacts being homeless has on children including increased anxiety, behavioural issues and mental illness; higher rates of asthma, recurrent ear infections, vision problems, eczema, and developmental delays.
On a basic level, homelessness for children means missing out. Missing out on the things that other children take for granted such as a safe place to sleep every night, school excursions, regular nutritious meals and the opportunity to bring friends home after school.
One of the most tragic things is that it can become the start of a vicious cycle. Children who have been homeless are more likely than others to find themselves homeless as adults – homelessness can become a way of life.
- Homelessness Australia, Homelessness and Children Information sheet – http://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/UserFiles/File/Fact%20sheets/Fact%20Sheets%202011-12/Homelessness%20&%20Child%202011-12.pdf
- The Sydney Morning Herald – http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/homeless-stats-dont-tell-the-full-story-20140308-34dyd.html
- Right Now Inc – Marina Lou Matching Children with Compassion, http://rightnow.org.au/topics/children-and-youth/matching-children-with-compassion/