Youth homelessness – the sadness, the dangers and being “at risk”

Homelessness is a problem that we normally associate with far away people in far away countries. Sadly, though, homelessness is a significant issue in Australia and if we let ourselves imagine homeless people in Australia, we probably visualise a dirty and unwell looking man asleep on a park bench.

Unfortunately, it’s even sadder than that.

42{ba4639bc087185d97391fd5d15a50de89571c56f25425ee41c30a195518528de} of the homeless population in Australia is under 25 years of age – a number estimated to be around 26 000 children and youth. Yes, children, too. Infants and children can be homeless along with other members of their family. The Bureau of Statistics provides an age breakdown from figures that were gathered in 2008.

Just under three-quarters of homeless youth leave home to escape family violence, abuse, family breakdown and parental substance use. For many, their first experience of homelessness is “Couch Surfing” – being unable to return home, they move from place to place staying with their friends’ families. Many also end up spending time on the streets, in hostels or emergency accommodation which may not always be safe.

Whilst homeless young people can be tricky to pin down The Salvation Army report that in a group of homeless young people that were surveyed, over one third of them reported that police had visited their homes in response to violence between their parents. Many (14{ba4639bc087185d97391fd5d15a50de89571c56f25425ee41c30a195518528de}) said that the police had come to their homes on more than 10 occasions. Not surprisingly, many homeless youth reported psychological distress and mental illness including self harm and suicidal thoughts. In my experience with homeless youth (sadly, again, when they have found a home in youth justice facilities), they are also more likely to have serious health issues. Sleeping “rough” can be hard on a young person’s growing developing spine and other bones, poor nutrition levels, the health risk of exposure to substance use and missing out of preventative immunisation programs.

In order to do sound, long-term research, much effort has gone into trying to understand which children might be most at risk of homelessness so that steps can be taken to prevent young people living without a safe home. Given that much homelessness usually follows family problems, conflict, discipline, abuse, neglect or parental substance issues, clearly there are many difficulties that proceed homelessness and can serve as useful indicators that a young person needs more ongoing support.

To me, it seems like there is a risk in anything that causes a young person to be disconnected from a safe and supportive place to belong.

One group of researchers actually looked at children who were homeless and compared to children who were “at risk” of homelessness as well as children who were not at risk. Their survey was very large and it indicted that as many of 10-14{ba4639bc087185d97391fd5d15a50de89571c56f25425ee41c30a195518528de} of school students met the criteria to be at risk of homelessness. Concerningly, being “at risk” of homelessness was almost the same as being homeless in terms of negative outcomes like suicide attempts, abuse and low quality of life. “At risk” youth had six times higher levels of depressive symportna than homeless youth, more trouble with their social skills and a longer history of problem behaviours. Their families had poor family management and high levels of substance use. The researchers concluded that the “at risk” kids were likely negatively affected by the same things that led to homelessness, but the homeless youth had a greater sense of self control and responsibility than those caught up in a toxic home life. Clearly, we need to be able to intervene with these children even before we see them as being at risk of homelessness. They need help and support when they are “at risk” of being “at risk”.

If there is a chain of events that leads to young people being homeless, we need to start as soon as we notice the first link.

  • Stay aware and spread awareness about youth safety. Remember a young person’s safety is paramount. Report abuse and neglect.
  • Don’t ignore young people’s cries for help.
  • Support families who may have a child with problematic behaviour to get some intervention early before the behaviour leads to them disengaging from safe friends or being suspended from school.
  • Encourage a sense of belonging at school or in other groups or even workplaces.
  • If a child is regularly missing school, follow up before they disengage all together.
  • Volunteer your time with one of the many agencies that provides support to young people
  • Get behind programs and campaigns targeted to put domestic violence in the spotlight
  • Support parents that you may know who are trying to overcome substance use

For those of you who are interested in learning more or doing further research into the psychology of homelessness, check out this book for some sound information.

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