There are currently 29,700 Victorians aged between 15–24 years not in full-time education who are unemployed (13.9 per cent).5 Among these are many of the almost 4000 young Victorians experiencing homelessness on any given night.6
The relatively low rates of engagement in employment and education of young people experiencing homelessness is underlined by a range of research and data sources. For example, in the last quarter of 2011, only 29 per cent of the 15–18 year old clients using specialist homelessness services, and who gave their educational status, were enrolled in formal study or training (63 per cent of those presenting).7
A Victorian study of homeless young people conducted in 2004 found that only 2.7 per cent of young people were employed full-time and 6.2 per cent were employed part-time or casually just before accessing homelessness services and support. This increased to only 3.5 and 7.2 per cent following support.8
More recent data from the Commonwealth Department of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) and the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) demonstrate that many of Australia’s young homeless jobseekers have a highest education level of Year 11 or less, which compromises their capacity to secure employment, especially skilled employment. DEEWR data also indicate that around 19 per cent of young people experiencing homelessness have been identified as ex-offenders.9 These findings are consistent with a review of data on juveniles on remand in Tasmania that showed that unstable home environments and a lack of suitable accommodation were factors that contributed to high rates of remand.10
Low rates of engagement in education and employment are not the only causes and/or consequences of homelessness. Young people experience homelessness for a variety of reasons but most commonly because of conflict with parents, violence at home, the desire for independence, anxiety and depression, or drug and/or alcohol use (their own or that of another family member).11
Health and wellbeing issues and related service use are also commonly associated with young people’s experiences of homelessness. For example, a recent Australian study found that 60 per cent of participants sought help for mental health issues and 46 per cent for drug and alcohol issues. Only 40 per cent rated their overall health as good or very good, well below the Australian average of 56 per cent. Furthermore, more than half did not feel connected to a community.12
A different sort of intervention is required to prevent young people who become homeless from cycling through the homelessness service system.
Another 2006 study of young people experiencing homelessness found that 41 per cent of participants had used a public hospital in the preceding year and 25 per cent had used a community health service.13 Clearly, young people experiencing homelessness are significantly more likely to experience lower educational attainment, poorer physical and mental health and greater reliance on government services, including health services.
Victoria currently provides specialist services for young people experiencing homelessness including 18 youth refuges, one youth-specific transitional housing manager and 83 agencies with 226 (equivalent) full-time workers.14
However, it is clear from the evidence presented above that the current model of homelessness support is not meeting the needs of young people. There are gaps in the service system that are failing to assist them to reach their full potential.
A different sort of intervention is required to prevent young people who become homeless from cycling through the homelessness service system. Over time they risk becoming long-term homeless and unemployed, and high users of the mental health, drug and alcohol and criminal justice systems, at significant cost to themselves, government and the wider community.
Homelessness among young people leads to increased costs for State and Territory Governments, not only in the provision of homelessness services, but also of public housing, health services, police, justice and corrections, and child protection. Youth homelessness also has significant costs to the Commonwealth through welfare payments, employment support programs and reduced tax income.
For the community, the cost lies in reduced civic participation, increased reliance on welfare services and a rise in crime. For the individual, homelessness leads to greater physical and mental health issues, reduced opportunities to undertake education and therefore employment, and less capacity to participate in society.
Based on rough estimates, the cost to the community for a person on welfare payments from the age of 16 to retirement is approximately $825,000 (in 2011 dollar terms). By comparison, someone working and earning an average wage from the age of 16 onwards contributes approximately $390,000 in income tax to the community, a difference of $1.2 million for one individual. In addition, stable housing and employment will lead to increased consumption levels, which will lead to increased government income via GST payments.15
As well as this economic cost, young people who experience homelessness are more likely to have accessed other community services. Clearly, these young people require an intervention that links them to education and employment.
Education and employment are critical to ensuring the life chances of any young person.
Education and employment are critical to ensuring the life chances of any young person and particularly so for young people who are homeless and in need of independence. Young people who complete educational qualifications are much more likely to have the capacity to sustain an ongoing engagement with the labour market. This is critical to maintaining housing and economic independence. School leavers who do not complete Year 12 are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as those who have (19 per cent and 8 per cent respectively), and nearly nine times more likely not to be in the labour force (18 per cent and 2 per cent respectively).16 Early school leavers experience social exclusion at three times the rate of those who have completed Year 12.17
Sustainable employment is a vital pathway out of poverty and homelessness. The experiences and backgrounds that impact on education and skills attainment also affect entry into, and the retention of, paid work. However, current employment assistance services fail to offer highly disadvantaged young people a reasonable prospect of obtaining a job.18 As a consequence, they are often stuck in an education or training vortex, where participation in education and training programs becomes a mandatory activity to meet compliance requirements, rather than something that is going to increase employment opportunities. It is critical that the intersection between training and employment provides the flexibility to engage jobseekers in courses that interest them and allow them to gain sustainable outcomes.
One of the other challenges faced by young people is accessing work experience and structured workplace learning. Placements with local employers have become the preserve of high-achieving students. Those young people who may have some barriers to learning and engagement are effectively excluded from these essential developmental experiences. Such young people need a more coordinated and personalised model of employment assistance that provides guidance, coaching, mentoring opportunities and support.
Young people experience homelessness for a variety of reasons but most commonly because of conflict with parents, violence at home, the desire for independence, anxiety and depression, or drug and/or alcohol use.
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Artwork title: Bungil
Artist: Aunty Janice Bakes (Elder, Indigenous Education Centre)
Bungil is the protector of the land and the creator