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Family Matters No. 27 - November 1990

Homelessness still a problem

Burdekin Equiry reconvened
Robyn Hartley


This article reports on the Australian Institute of Family Studies' submission to the re-convened hearing of the National Enquiry into Homeless Children. Issues addressed by the Institute include: the lack of evidence of a drop in the numbers of young homeless people or an increase in the level of appropriate accommodation and services; the importance of developing preventative approaches to youth homelessness; and the need for well-designed projects to assist young homeless people.

In reviewing a decade of youth policy in the last issue of Family Matters (No.26, April 1990, pp.19-24), Frank Maas discussed responses to the problem of youth homelessness. He outlined positive Commonwealth Government moves following the release of the Burdekin Report, 'Our Homeless Children', but suggested that much still needed to be done, particularly in addressing the underlying factors producing youth homelessness.

This was dramatically illustrated during re-convened hearings of the National Enquiry into Homeless Children by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in June and July of this year, over a year and a half after the release of the Burdekin Report. This report included recommendations for both immediate and long-term action in the areas of income support, accommodation, health services, support services, and education and training, and it stressed the need for integration and coordination of services at a Commonwealth, State and local community level.

Two of the original Commissioners, Mr Brian Burdekin, chairperson of the Enquiry, and Ms Jan Carter, Director, Social Policy and Research Centre of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Victoria, visited several States to assess the response of State governments to the extensive list of recommendations in the report.

In opening the hearings, Mr Burdekin referred to the deaths from drug overdoses of young homeless people which could have been prevented if health services recommended in his report had been set up (The Age, 28 June 1990). Other problems he identified were: failure of Commonwealth and State governments to agree on who was responsible for under 16-year-olds, the continuing high incidence of child abuse among homeless children, lack of State government consultation with the community sector in seeking solutions, poor coordination between those services which did exist, very limited attention to preventive action, including the development of family support programs, and not enough emphasis on community based programs.

AIFS Submission to Re-convened Hearings

The Institute, which had provided findings from its research on unsupported young people to the original Enquiry, was among a number of organisations and agencies which made submissions to the re-convened hearings.

The Institute argued that there is no evidence of any drop in the numbers of young homeless people or any significant increase in the level of appropriate accommodation and services. On the contrary, agencies are still reporting that demand is increasing and that they are unable to provide adequately for more than a small fraction of the people who are seeking assistance. Homeless young people in Melbourne, including girls as young as 12 and 13 years, are being referred to inappropriate and short-term accommodation such as cheap hotels because no other suitable supported accommodation is available. In addition to young people on their own, welfare agencies report an increasing number of requests for assistance from families with children, particularly single-parent families affected by high rents.

The Institute made the point that the same issues which were clearly outlined in 'Our Homeless Children' are still being identified by people in the field as major problems. These include: inadequate income support for many; the particular needs of different groups of homeless young people, including young women with children and refugee youth; continuing need for longer term housing options with appropriate support; inadequate access to existing health services; police harassment of young people and lack of understanding by police of the problems of young people in the streets; limited options faced by young people in the 'care' of the State and the absence of good 'exit' programs offering support to young offenders; education and training policies which do not cater for homeless youth; and continuing problems with coordination of services.

The Institute noted that as yet there appears to be limited emphasis on preventive approaches to youth homelessness, which was a major emphasis of the Burdekin Report. In Victoria, a start has been made. Commonwealth funds for youth and family mediation are being employed in two existing centres (see Ilene Wolcott's article in this issue) and the Ministry of Education has a number of projects aimed at preventing early school leaving, assisting students who are not supported by their parents but who wish to remain at school, encouraging programs which combine school and work and providing some help for young people and parents who are in conflict. There are also connections between the family mediation services and student welfare coordinators in schools and plans to run conflict resolution training for teachers and for parents and young people.

While these developments will no doubt help some young people, the resources are spread very thinly and the great majority of areas, including those which need them most, lack such services.

The Institute submission said that to be useful, family mediation services need seriously to consider how to be accessible to young people, to link into the youth services network and to schools, be flexible in approach and comprehensive in the services which are offered. This includes offering relevant support, or appropriate referral, to young people from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Links with the youth services network, including refuges, are particularly important. At present, housing workers, who in most cases have neither the time nor the skills to deal effectively with family problems, are being called on to deal with them.

Family situations which lead to youth homelessness almost invariably develop over a period of time. This means that different types of support will be needed at different stages. While mediation may be appropriate at some stages, assistance with health issues, parenting, and child development information will be more appropriate at others. Family mediation is not a cure-all, but it can play a useful part in some situations which could result in youth homelessness - for example, in helping stepfamilies understand the particular stresses they face, and in helping families negotiate young people's moves towards independence.

In addition, the Institute argued that projects to assist young homeless people needed to be carefully designed and set up, recognising that short-term funding, inadequate planning, unrealistic demands on project workers and expectations of quick and clearly measurable results are not likely to lead to positive results. Research and general monitoring of trends is still needed. Although there are clear indications of some of the pre-disposing factors in families towards youth homelessness, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, parental drug and alcohol abuse, family breakdown and family poverty, there are a number of areas which need further research. This need not necessarily mean expensive, large scale research.

Finally, the Institute submission stated that the tendency for economic perspectives to predominate over social perspectives in making policy decisions meant that serious problems have not yet been resolved. Consistent with previous Institute statements about youth policy, it was reiterated that Governments and the community had still to face the problems of how to ensure a valued place for young people in society, determine a workable, realistic and flexible balance of family, State and individual responsibility for young people in different circumstances, and be more realistic about what constitutes adequate income support, in the absence of waged work, for young people with no parental support.