Intervening early to prevent youth homelessness: Lessons from the Geelong Project

Content type
Event date

30 October 2019, 1:00 pm to 2:00 pm (AEST)


David MacKenzie, Sandy Meessen




This webinar was held on Wednesday 30 October 2019.

Youth homelessness is a concerning social issue associated with a range of poor outcomes for young people, including early school leaving. In Australia, the number of young people who seek help from homelessness services is higher now than a decade ago, despite early intervention programs operating in some places. Overall, the homelessness service system for young people remains largely crisis-oriented, rather than preventative.

This webinar explored what the research tells us about youth homelessness in Australia and what can be done to help prevent it. It focused specifically on the Geelong Project, an innovative place-based approach to early intervention that involves:

  • population screening for young people at risk of homelessness or early school leaving
  • a youth-focused and family-centred approach to support at-risk young people
  • a practice framework that brings together youth and family workers with school wellbeing staff to respond to young people’s needs.

The webinar discussed how this approach has been applied in Geelong, Victoria, and considered the emerging evidence on its outcomes for young people. It is of interest to youth and social workers, wellbeing and student support staff in schools, service/program managers, and policy makers who have responsibility for youth and education programs.

Audio transcript (edited)

MR DEAN: And welcome to today's Webinar, Intervening Early to Prevent Youth Homelessness Lessons from the Geelong Project. My name's Adam Dean. I'm a senior research officer here at AIFS and the coordinator of the Webinars for the CFCA information exchange. I'd like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the lands in which we are meeting today, in Melbourne. The traditional custodians are the Wurundjeri of the Kulin nations. I pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and to the elders from other communities who may be participating today.

Today's Webinar will discuss youth homeless and what needs to be done to address the problem, with a particular focus on early intervention. We have two great presenters for you today. Associate Professor David MacKenzie, who has been at the centre of youth homelessness research and policy for decades. And Team Leader of the Geelong Project at Barwon Child Youth and Family Services, Sandy Meessen. Sandy is at the coalface working directly with practitioners and young people at risk of homelessness. David and Sandy are going to be discussing the work that they've been doing in Geelong, Victoria.

David will present some background to youth homelessness in Australia and how early intervention can work to prevent it. And Sandy is going to discuss more of the operational aspects of how the Geelong Project works in practise. Just a bit of housekeeping. We encourage you to send your questions through by the chat box during the Webinar for David and Sandy to answer during our Q & A session at the end of today's presentation. Those we can't get to, will be answered in the forum online afterwards. And just to let you know, please let us know if you don’t want your question published online.

As always, our Webinars are recorded. The slides will be available in the – they are available in the hand out section of Go to Webinar. And the audio, slides, audio transcript and recording of the Webinar will be available on the CFCA website in the next couple of weeks. I'll hand over to David now. Please give him a very warm virtual welcome.

MR MacKENZIE: Thanks, Adam. And hello, everybody. Sandy and I are going to start off with some brief comments about the problem of youth homeless in Australia. I'm sure you've all seen newspaper articles such as the one on this slide. 'Homelessness crisis gripping Melbourne'. And, of course, if you go into the central CBD of Melbourne or any other capital city, you see people of different ages, some of them young, many of them are older, you know, sleeping rough, sleeping somewhere in the city, sometimes begging. This is the visible tip of the iceberg of homelessness. And the first thing to say about that is that we need to recognise that this is a very small group on any night. That most Australians, or most people in Australia that are homeless, are probably somewhere sheltered.

And we do and we have had a broad definition – just having trouble moving the slides. We'll see if we can fix that. All right. We're just fixing a technical glitch.

MR DEAN: Sorry, guys.

MR MacKENZIE: We have had a very broad definition for a long time in Australia. We understand that not having a permanent home isn't just rough sleeping, it encompasses a whole range of other situations, and in a moment, hopefully when the slide is restored, I'll just show you what some of those situations look like. Okay, we're nearly back in business. I love technology, but, you know, these things do happen. Okay.

So here's the definition that's been widely used in Australia, the primary, secondary and tertiary homelessness, the cultural definition, and it's obviously people sleeping rough with no place to live are definitely homeless. What we call secondary homeless are situations where people may be couch surfing, staying temporarily with other households. They might be in supported accommodation, might be a refuge or some other facility. Or they could be in other temporary lodgings, but they don't have a permanent home. And the third group that sometimes is subject to debate is the people living in boarding houses, we call that a form of tertiary homelessness.

I don't know whether any of you have ever lived in a boarding house or stayed in a boarding house. It's not really a home. It's not the same as a share house. As a building, it may be, but you don't really control who's in the room next to you. You're not in control of who comes in and out of the boarding house, and many of those boarding houses, not all. Particularly the private ones are pretty – not nice places to stay. So that is a form a homelessness. People don't have tenure. They get kicked out if they miss their rent. And some of the people running these companies, running these boarding houses, they're pretty rapacious.

Just to go through a few of the notable things. Unlike other countries such as the United States or even Canada and the UK, we've actually responded to homelessness much, much earlier. In 1982, for example, there was a senate enquiry report on youth homelessness. And people had noticed in the late 70s that young people were turning up at the shelters of those days. The most notable thing, and these are only a few of notable sort of policy moments or program moments in the history of youth homelessness, the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program, or as many people over the years have actually SAAP, from 1985 to 2009 was a combined federal and state program. About a third of the services were youth services.

In the end, about 1,500 or 1,200 services throughout Australia, quite a diversity of services. And Australia's always been notable for the diversity of homeless responses. We've been quite innovative. I think we should celebrate that. The second notable moment, if you like, is the human rights and equal opportunity commission enquiry that Commissioner Brian Burdekin did in 1989. The report, Our Homeless Children, had a huge impact. And Commissioner Burdekin is a marvellous advocate. You know, barnstorm the county, raising community awareness, and advocating for things to be done to address homelessness.

Sadly, not enough of what he advocated to be done was actually done in the years after that report. In the mid-90s, a prime ministerial task force led to the first early intervention program in the world, I believe, for homeless people. The Reconnect Program, and that's run from 1997 to about 2003. And there are workers who take referrals and can go into families and help them deal with whatever issues, like family reconciliation or family conflict. That's been a good program, but as we'll talk later, perhaps we need to think beyond it. In 2008, I was involved in a national youth commission enquiry into youth homelessness, modelled very much on Brian Burdekin's enquiry. And 400 page report, 80 recommendations, 26 hearings throughout the country.

That had a big impact in terms of a government-wide paper, later in 2008. The Road Home, the federal government-wide paper. And this is still the framework that frames what we're doing about homelessness in Australia. Let's just quickly look at some statistics. We've said over many years that about 100,000 individuals, men, women and children when the ABS does a count on census night are in situations that we would recognise as homeless. And in the last census, that figure was 116,000. They don't use quite the same definition as the cultural definition, but there's a large number of Australians of various ages who are homeless by those definitions.

The other way you can get statistics is to count or to have numbers for the number of people who actually seek and get help from homelessness services in a year. And this has been going up and up and up over many years. It's now, in 2016, 288,000 men, women and children, who get some sort of support from homeless services over the year. And that amounts to something like about 42,000 homeless young people on their own, 15 to 24. About another 84,000, 85,000 young parents with children, and that's a family – young family. And then about another 161,000 older adults. So this is what the longitudinal picture is for youth homelessness in Australia.

It is, over the past 10 years, kind of plateaued out. It's been kept on going up, which is a good thing, but it hasn't come down. So it looks like it's sort of an equilibrium. You know, is this what we should accept? That there's going to be 40,000 young people that need help from homeless services every year, and that's all there is to it. Or should we be thinking differently about how to make a difference and to bring it back to a much lower – and to actually end homelessness. That was the challenge that we actually faced in Geelong. And the key question was, well, how do we sort of think our way out of this situation? What could we do differently?

And before you do things differently, you've actually got to be able to think differently. So, first of all, what the system looks like from a young person's perspective, it's a mess. It's hard to make sense of, it's hard to know where you get into it and where you need to go. And young people don't have a sense of what the system looks like. It's quite complicated. And I guess the challenge for all of us in something like the Geelong Project is to simplify that for young people and to provide a much easier access and more responsive support, but we'll talk about that later. This is obvious, isn't it? Same old thinking, you get the same old restaurants.

And apparently that's what we've been doing over the years, year by year, same old thinking, same old programs, same old results. Things are not changing for the better, so what can we do? Firstly, it's complex. It's not a simple thing. We sometimes talk about problems as wicked problems or complex problems. Homelessness is certainly that. And we started to think about, well, what is the system? And how can we sort of make sense of homelessness in a systems way? So I guess one point to make is that we certainly need to appreciate the lived experience of people who are experiencing homelessness. That's a great starting point.

If we don't have that, we're flying blind. But we've also got to actually be able to turn that into systems thinking and systems modelling. We've got be able to think about the system that's going to actually deliver some real help to those people. So it's a combination of those two things, working between a deep understanding of lived experience and the issues and the things that young people face. And a really strong concept of what the system is and how we can make it better. And we started to do that work in Geelong. It took about two years. It was a cooperative venture between myself as a university academic and, I guess, what I'd call brilliant leading practitioners on the ground that were discontent with the existing system that they were part of.

And it's out of that that we made some headway. One of the first insights that we had is that we realised that this wasn't a single issue. That early school leaving and youth homelessness were intimately connected issues. That when you look at what's going on in the early stage, it's not distinctly a drug problem, acquiring a drug program. Or it may not even be a homelessness problem requiring purely a homeless – we tend to respond to these youth issues in silo – with silo programs. And when we talk about the Geelong Project, you'll see how we've done this differently on the ground in Geelong.

This was one of the big insights that brings together a school issue with what was seen as an out of school issue with youth homelessness. And that's why the collaboration between the schools and the agencies is new thinking and something new. You don't need to worry too much about this, but one of my systems thinking diagrams. But one way to think about a system is what's called a stock and flow diagram. There's flows into the systems and there's flows out of the system.

And one of the great challenges is how do we stop young people getting into the homelessness systems? And then if they're in the homelessness system, there's nowhere they can go back to. How do we get them out of it as quickly as possible? What housing options do we have? And for young people, we have to have all of them getting education, training and employment support. People need a job. Young people need a job. They need a life. Without work, that's going to be pretty difficult. So this is kind of a way of thinking about the system. And it comes down to this, this is the existing system. It's mainly an emergency response, a crisis response. Very little prevention and early intervention and housing supports not so much, not as much as we need. That's the existing system.

So how do we act differently? I'm going to quickly go thorough. There's basically five things that we need to do. Well, one thing to do is that we need to support young people exiting care and custodial systems. That's foster care, institutional care, young people leaving juvenile justice. We do know from the research that these are our particularly vulnerable group of young people who commonly enter the homelessness service system at some point soon after they leave care. We know who they are. We know that they're leaving the care system.

That point, we can do something that's early intervention. We can do something to prevent them actually entering the homelessness service system, but we don't do that nearly as much as we should. Systems based approach to early intervention. That's a whole number of things. We need to strengthen family and natural supports. So, Sandy will talk about the youth focused family centered work. I'll just focus on working with the young person, but it's working with the family as well. There's community based early intervention. There's school based early intervention. There's home based placements.

Putting those in place can be a preventative measure. If people are in housing, we can prevent their eviction from housing. And when young people turn up at the entry points in Victoria, wanting to get into the specialist homeless homes service system, if we do some of the right things we can actually divert them at that point, actually going into the system. If we're alert to the early intervention challenge that they bring. So what about housing for young people, rapid rehousing, we don't provide that very well. There is transitional housing and of course we need affordable and secure housing for young people. Young people don't get into social housing. There are about 16 per cent of the clients of the specialist homeless service system and about 2.9 per cent of the residents in social housing. That's got be 
re-thought and these days young people need to be able to access that sort of housing or that form of housing, perhaps not as a lifetime destination. But as part of their process of living independently. And that's not currently possible but there's some working going on to cure that.

And the last thing is, something that's come out of the UK called duty to assist. And that is, in legislation in the UK, it's unlikely to be the case in either Canada or Australia but, I guess it means, a rights based approach. It could be legislation, we can ensure that rights is built into policy. And we certainly can embody a rights based approach in practice. So we can implement it in a way. And the Geelong Project is pretty good about doing that. That's what the future should look like. We want less of an emergency and crisis response, we want much more preventions and much more in the way of rapid re-housing, social housing options, and youth appropriate housing options. That's what the future needs to look like. And we showed you before what the existing system is. So that's one of the great challenges. So we're going to talk about the COS model. It's a bit about the thinking that we went through. We started to think about system change, we started to think about the system as a community. And then we started to think about, well how could it be different. So some of you listening to this – or watching this, will have seen or heard us talk about the model at various conferences and seminars I guess. There's a number of key features. And I think we probably would focus on four. There's collaboration, now that's an over-used word. Collaboration an organised community collective of agencies and schools. A new institution, new structures, new processes. It's a deep collaboration, it's not because of funding and it's not because of funded program. It's changing how people work on the ground. And the second one is, a key innovation is identifying at risk young people prior to crisis. So we have a methodology for doing that. And that's crucial and we use local knowledge but we also use an Australian, The Index of Adolescent Development Survey. And I might get Sandy to talk a little bit about that.

MS MEESSEN: Yep, so the Australian Index of Adolescent Development is a really – it's a useful tool. Particularly because it actually runs out with all the schools. So every single student that is at the school will participate in this survey. Many different kind of schools actually run it very differently. Some have it in military precision, most of the schools actually have the Geelong Project workers come out and assist with the facilitating and conducting the survey. Particular because the questions are quite standardised due to a lot of like going through the Ethical Board. So what we do is, with the Geelong Project workers, is that they're able to assist on the ground with trying to decipher some of the language that is used. Like for example 'Am I friends with myself?'

Those kind of questions can sometimes stump young people. So it's really actually quite a vital part of having the Geelong workers at those kind of events where the survey is being run. One of the other things that we've really looked at this year is the students that have English as their second language and how they're going to be able to participate in this survey. So some of the different things we looked at is obviously looking at how to assist the EAL teachers around deciphering some of the language that is more multiculturally appropriate.

But with the survey it does have really clear indicators that we get back such as the mental health indicator, the risk of disengagement of education and the risk of homelessness. With this survey, it's also around like the privacy and consent. So we definitely have privacy consultant engaged to develop appropriate consent and also mechanisms. So one of the options that we do have with the survey is we have an opt-out. Where a lot of the families will be notified prior to the survey taking place, where they have an option to opt-out of having their child participate in the survey. There also is an opt-out for the young people as well on the day of the survey. So they do not have to participate, it's fully voluntary. And I suppose one of the good things is that it is quite a good thing when young people – if they do opt-out that we're able to communicate that with the wellbeing staff at the school and really flag that name. Generally the wellbeing are aware of the families that do opt out at times.

One of the things that we do look at is young people, like our TPG workers are co-located at the schools. So we have a number of staff that are co-located in the schools that are able to be there on the ground throughout the whole year and really establish a strong relationship with the school. We also look at, one of the things is, with the tier approach. We look at, one of the things that come out through obviously this next slide that you'll see is a population break down of the identified at risk groups that have come through.

So one of the pilot schools, there was a student population of 1277 students and it shows there on that graph how it actually broken down into a number of different sections, such as young people have been identified significantly at risk of homelessness which is technically our tier threes. Which I'll talk a bit more a bit further down the track. As well as some young people that require mental health support and also require that monitoring and that assistance from the school. What we've actually seen in like 2019 so far is the data that we've seen is that the three most, really common traits of young people that come through the Geelong Project is experiencing family conflict, family violence and mental health which is very much an indicator of what's on the graph that you see.

I suppose what happens after the survey is, it is actually really broken down into a screening process where the TGP workers will come out to the schools with collaboration from the wellbeing team and screen these young people that have been identified through the survey. The beauty about the survey is it actually picks up young people that generally wellbeing may not be aware of. Or the students that are, like the quiet ones. So we're able to have a really quick half, like half an hour kind of screening process where we ask a number of different kind of questions. What happens out of that is, it's really an information finding procedure. And at the end of the day we'll have a meeting with wellbeing to really get an idea of what the information the school might have around the family dynamics. Or how the young person is academically going at school or how much they attend school. What that actually comes to is a decision point where we really look at what tier of support these young people are in. In the Geelong Project we have three different tiers. So we have tier one, tier two and tier three.

Tier one is really like young people that are that lower end, not at that crisis point and there is some indication of risk of homelessness and some indication of school disengagement and family breakdown. There's still that connection with family and there's still a connection with the school and community. Generally the tier ones are also ones that are really more present at school. And there's really no like family history of services being involved. What that tier one can look like or what that response may be is it could be that we have a discussion with the school wellbeing and they feel like they've got everything under control.

So we would put them on the school to monitor list. Which is a really good tool that we use throughout the year where we have regular meetings with the school just to keep an eye on what these young people are doing and how they're tracking along. We also look at targeted interventions such as, we might look at like quick access to brokerage for like counselling or access to special services or advocacy. So it could be such things as having a quick education meeting and talking to the assistant principal or the learning partners around changing subjects or changing timetables to try and assist the young person in continuing on their education journey. The other tier one thing that we've doing quite successfully is the group work where we have a number of young people that have identified that have the same kind of really relevant components and complexities that have happened in their lives that we can really work together as a group. And work on building up that resilience and building up those kind of key components. We also look at really short, sharp case management.

With tier two, tier two is a little bit different, that's pretty much our bread and butter at the Geelong Project. So tier two looks at like, the risk of like more family homelessness. We look at – there's a bit of conflict within the family. And there are some connections but it still needs to be that strengthened and more building capacity. We also look at really having, like they have reliance on the Geelong Project to help them build up and to assist them in working out and navigating there things are going for their lives. Some of the tier two kind of responses that we can look at is that short term case management. Roughly around 12 weeks.

We look at it like targeted interventions such as family mediation where we get really there, into there with the family and take that youth centred family approach. We look at counselling, we look at – really looking at mental health and how to link this young person with mental health services that are available in that region. We really work on the young person's pace and what they are wanting to achieve. In tier three that's our chronically disengaged. So that's young people that are homeless or currently couch surfing. They are chronically disengaged from school, haven’t been at school for like six months or more. That they have unstable connections with their family or school and are really are reliant on that support services.

What we necessarily do with the tier three's is we look at different avenues where it could be a better response that they might receive. Or it could be with our youth and family support team that is at that crisis point. It could be looking at other different avenues as well and different referrals. So what does that look like for you guys hearing me and I suppose the best way to explain it is through case studies. So one of them is Tamara, who is a typical tier one response.

So Tamara was actually pick up through the survey when screening took place. And it was really discovered that Tamara had a history of family violence. And is currently experiencing some family conflict. There are also concerns around – with school with Tamara is that she was starting to skip class. So was – in the last four weeks she skipped about four different classes. When we actually met with the school, they indicated to us that there was a Child FIRST referral that was already been made. But there was a six week wait which is quite common in this kind of arena. We also looked at trying to have TGP provide an interim support and what would that look like.

So Tamara was also exposed to extensive family violence perpetrated by her father which was historical. But her father wasn't around for a number of years. Some conflict arose between her Tamara and her mum when mum was really trying to put appropriate boundaries in place, resulting in Tamara sometimes getting escalated and having a bit of respite her grandmothers. So what did TGP do? So TPG actually built a really good quick rapport with Tamara and her mum. We also were able to offer emotional support and strategies to Tamara around managing adolescent/parent conflict and trauma in relation to past family violence.

Unfortunately Tamara wasn't willing to link into some counselling however, we were able to think of different ways that we could look at that. So we had the TGP worker complete the origin anger management module with Tamara around how deescalate and be really emotionally tuned. We also looked at linking her with a number of different kind of mental health strategies like sensory packs, that kind of thing. We also organised a school meeting with Tamara and her mum and really looked at strategies to put in place to assist her with coming less overwhelmed in class, such as like diaries utilising diaries, her sensory tools, that kind of thing. We also really worked closely with the allocated family services worker that was coming in and did a transition period, which was around two weeks.

So obviously the outcomes that we achieved from this is Tamara felt that she was more in control of her emotions, the relationship between Tamara and her mother improved drastically. There were hardly any fights, they were able to communicate. Tamara even joined a local football team which is really huge and she's quite talented. Which one is a great kind of avenue to express out her energy but also have that community and that sense of positive relationships around her.

So with Jason, so Jason is a typical tier two response. So Jason was also picked up through the survey where screening took place. It was discovered that Jason was disengaged from school on and off over the past six months and had a history of mental health concerns. Jason's mum was happy for support which is an absolute bonus. And she seemed to be at loss due to Jason's anxiety, anger outbursts, since moving school later on in the year. With Jason he actually had been in three different secondary schools over the last 18 months due to parents needing to relocate to work.

Jason indicated that he wanted to return back to school and he had rekindled a friendship with another peer and he used to go to primary school with. Jason was previously linked in with Mental Health Services however stopped attending his appointments and refused to take medication to assist him. So what did TGP do? So a TGP worker actually met with Jason on a weekly basis, mostly at home because Jason wasn't actually attending the school at the time and also in public. The worker referred Jason's mother to the TGP 
co-located family drop in services worker which is actually quite a unique part of the Geelong Project is that we have a multidisciplinary team, we have a family services drop-in worker, we also have a mental health early intervention worker that can assist us and really look at cross-pollination of skills in sharing what can be done across the whole team.

So we looked at Jason's mum and father, also had three sessions with the family services worker. And to identify the cause of what that family conflict looked like. The worker also linked in Jason's mum with Tuning Into Teens parenting course, which was able to really assist the mum around emotionally tuning to the young person. As well as trying to understand a bit more around anxiety and how to work with that. We also assisted with facilitating a school meeting with a year coordinator to develop a plan for Jason to return to school on a modified timetable. At first it wasn't as successful but as the next term actually came on board it actually really kicked off, Jason started to attend school. We also looked at referring Jason to Equine Therapy as Jason wasn't really keen on that face-to-face kind of mental health services sessions.

So, outcomes that we achieved was that Jason's attendance increased significantly the following school term. And is now back on a full time curriculum. Jason's positive working relationship with the worker really transferred successfully when we linked him up with a school disengagement officer. And Jason continues to access support with schools. Jason is starting to grow his positive friendship network at the school, now that he's more there in the school grounds and Jason's mum has reported that there's very minimal conflict or anger outburst. The other really good point was that Jason's mum actually took over the reins and assisted Jason in actually attending Equine Therapy which was not only good for their relationship but also was great to see Jason's mum participating in that kind of process.

So typical tier three. So this tier three is actually one that's a bit close to home for me, this is actually one that I took on-board. So Emily was referred to the School Wellbeing Team particularly because there was concerns that Emily was homeless. And she was residing with her ex-boyfriend in a toxic and abusive relationship for the past three months. There was also, when I met with Emily, particularly, I was on the day at the school – which was one of the beauties of the Geelong Projects, in being allocated at the school you're there, right there and then and you're easy to be accessed for support.

So Emily came to me and had a conversation and she really spoke to me about that she hasn't been residing in the family home for over two years and is really contemplating dropping out, 10 weeks into finishing Year 12 to find support for herself financially. And move in to independent living. So what we looked at is, obviously with the worker, we explored what kind of potential family options there would be that would be appropriate for her to stay. I looked at aunties, uncles, grandparents and unfortunately there wasn't much family connection that she has. She didn't even know her father and all that she had was an older sister who was unable to assist because she was going through her own kind of complexities and issues.

One of the things is, Emily didn't give consent to speak to the mum, so I was unable to look at that family mediation work and as much as we tried to get that consent, sometimes it's a little bit of a difficulty but we try and do that as much as possible. We also looked at trying to look at a number of different housing options for Emily. One of the things with Emily is that one of her best friends was actually also another TGP client and actually really spoke to Emily about the positives of being linked in with the Geelong Project and what kind of support they can give. Because initially she was quite hesitant at the start.

So we looked at different housing options for her such as Youth Refuge, Horizon House, Lea Tenant and really went through what are the pros and cons and what would suit her. And we looked at Horizon house which she was able 
to – wanting to pursue. But we also put in a safety plan or where she can stay with a friend in between that time. So obviously we completed the referral, we supported Emily entering into Horizon House within a two week period which is really, really quick. And we also started assisting Emily with linking in with Centrelink, she had no income so was able to assist her with applying for youth allowance. We also provided a bit of interim support over the like, four week period where that support was transitioned over to the Horizon House case worker.

So what outcomes was achieved was that Emily was happy that she supported in accommodation that provided her with the stability, the first time she had in many years. She completed Year 12 and graduated with her friends which was absolutely a huge success for Emily. She also started to build a more positive connection with her older sister now that she wasn't reliant or needing to access support. Emily support transitioned smoothly from the Geelong Project to the Horizon House. And we also had the – and I also actually had the pleasure of running into Emily 18 months after the support ended where Emily informed me that she was now living independently and completed TAFE, which is absolutely amazing to hear.

MR MacKENZIE: Okay so the last – or the fourth pillar or foundation of the model is, a really big focus on actual outcomes, community outcomes. And the backbone support that's necessary to do that. So we have a longitudinal monitoring of all the students, as many as possible and a high portion of the total student population in schools. The two key outcome measures were to reduce youth homelessness in Geelong. And at the same time, to improve educational outcomes for the most disadvantaged students. And I'm going to show some data in a moment because those anecdotes are good stories, but we have many good stories.

So what does it amount to when we actually look at the overall picture statistically? So, let's do that. For about 10 years in Geelong, about 230 young people would front up to the specialist homelessness service system seeking help and getting help. It goes up and down of course but it's not coming down. Between 2013 and 2016 – and we didn't have any actual funding for this, so we implemented the full model. Both in data terms, measurement terms, worker terms. In three of the most disadvantaged schools in Geelong. And you can see from the graph that we've actually established a new baseline, 40 per cent lower. That's for the whole of Geelong. So most of the kids coming into the system were coming out of certain – coming into the homelessness system were coming out of certain disadvantage schools. If you can stop that flow, then you get that result. So the anecdotal evidence starts to look like that in terms of the statistical picture overall.

Now the other key outcomes measure was an educational one. And I was – and I did this, and this is a little bit more complicated but when I did this, in most places in Victoria, in most areas, Geelong or any other area, early school leaving is up and down a bit. But it's pretty much at whatever the level is. In Geelong it's about 250, 200 to 250 young people leave school early before finishing Year we. Now in the three schools where we were doing the work between the periods of 2013 to 2016, that's the darker green line on the graph. The number of early school leavers, has come down, or at least early leavers from education has actually decreased. The number overall in Geelong hasn't changed, we're only working initially in that period, in three of the 12 schools. And it had kind of gone up a little bit in the other schools, I don't know why there was a big hump in 2014. But we could see that we were beginning to make a difference. And so one of the things about data is that if you don't know what difference you're making, it's very had to make all the changes you need to make critically and you can't adjust your practice unless you know how well you're doing or how well you're not doing. But the story that we achieved was ground-breaking in terms of, the first time ever I think it's fair to say, that we've actually been able to reduce youth homelessness in any particular community. And we're also seeing some associated educational improvements. And we're building on that, the funded in the 2018 budget to expand to seven schools. And the work is continuing with an expanded workforce with new schools. And learning's going on all the time.

So, what kind of model? We want to end in sort of stepping back a little bit and thinking well, what kind of model is this compared to the existing system? Because we see this a system change challenge. If the system is really in a community – and we talk about education systems, we talk about homelessness service systems. But really what goes on in education, goes on in schools. Okay, there's policies and funding but it happens in schools. And it's in a community where the interactions of a system take place. That's where young people live, they go to school, that they have families, live with their family, leave their family, all these things happen interactively in a community such as Geelong or any other community in Melbourne or throughout Victoria. So let's just quickly think about the existing status quo and what needs to change.

The individual program impact is, what we currently do. We roll out programs often not decommissioning programs that are not so effective. We have specialised agendas, we have fragmented measurement, mainly for accountability purposes. The activities of one program are independent from the activities of any other program generally speaking. We have sporadic communication, agencies are prone to compete, often that have PR staff involved in, know promoting the agency and how good it is. And the efforts are not supported apart from the contract and the work that they do. What they did in Geelong though was they had I think eight different funded programs. They simply don't work to that. There's a pooled workforce on the Early Intervention platform of youth and family workers. And the youth and family workers work to the cases that come in.

They still get their KPIs in the programs they're funded to do. But what they're focussed on is those two key community outcomes, which is reducing homelessness and improving educational outcomes. So the change that we're kind of made is now known – people have heard this term, collective impact. Bringing together all the key stakeholders into the collaboration or the community collective with a common agenda. That's more than just going to a meeting and putting your hand up and saying I agree. It's a deeply felt supported common agenda.

We have shared measurement which is where the university Upstream Australia partnership comes in, data is important and we're working on software development and to improve and make more sophisticated the data and measurement side of it. Because that is crucial to being able to achieve the outcomes. The mutually reinforcing activities are plotted and worked out so that things actually work together. You don't have a hundred programs as one school had, you have some evidence based, mutually reinforcing activities, and a lot of it provided by the Geelong Project. And there's also other things that can fit into that architecture. And in the community collective you need continuous communication, everyone needs to be know and you need backbone support which is what we provide systemically but you also have local backbone support in a sort of a project coordinator. And this is collective impact. It looks something like that. I won't go through all of the detail of that. But we've embraced this sort of rigorously and almost fanatically. This is a huge change and this is really the reform agenda I think that we want to promote. That we need to change our systems along these lines. Not throw everything out, but maybe reconnect the dots differently. Maybe get rid of some programs that are spending money not getting results. And putting in new things. We need to renovate what we're doing and we've done that in Geelong.

MS MEESSEN: And I think speaking with David before is, some of the difference between agencies working in silos to the difference between that collective impact model that Geelong Project has, is there's a number of different things, there's one that you're not competing for funding. Which is absolutely huge. It's also around that support network as well, where we're all here for the same goal, which is producing fantastic outcomes for young people, whereas in a silo kind of program, a lot of them have KPIs around meeting a certain amount of target. Whereas with this collective impact you're looking at the outcomes and looking at what is the best for the young person.

MR MacKENZIE: So the next slide I'm going show, we couldn't resist putting this one in. This is from the Geelong Advertiser celebrating the achievement of the project. And I think rightly so, I think what we've managed to do is to show how effective early intervention can be done. And it's now being adopted in the U.S. there's a site in Seattle, Minnesota, there's some sites in Canada, we're working closely with colleagues now in three other continents. And so you know, you'd have to excuse us for not taking some pleasure in this sort of publicity. We didn't seek it but we got it - - -


MR MacKENZIE: - - - that was good. So the one big new idea I want to leave you with is, yes there is a way of doing it. And the change that we need to make on a systems wide basis is really a place based collective impact with that and that's what we're taking up with governments in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland over the next six to 12 months.

MR DEAN: Well brilliant thank you very much David and Sandy. We've got a lot of questions that have come through and I'm just looking at the clock. We probably have time for, maybe three or four. I imagine when you're talking about the Geelong Project and we talked a little bit about this earlier. So it works in Geelong and we know there's some trial sites happening elsewhere. What can you tell us about how it might be able to replicated elsewhere?

MR MacKENZIE: Okay I'd say two things, there's nothing in the model itself that should not be able to be transferred and translated to other communities. One of the signature sort of benefits of the model is that while there are some things that are not negotiable there's other things in terms of the process of forming the collective and how you bring things together. Communities can own this. It's not a mistake that it's called the Geelong Project. It's owned by the community. Or the Albury Project, it's owned by the community and so on. For this to work the communities got to embrace it and own it. So we now have multiple sites, some new sites, so that I think demonstrates that it's not something that's a one off. Regional sites have embraced it perhaps a bit earlier because they maybe have a stronger sense of being a community. But you have to build a community of action. And that's what we've done in Geelong. That's what will need to be done in Dandenong and all the suburbs in other places. And the work's going ahead to do that.

MR DEAN: Yeah great. We had a question about, 'Oh like this project sounds great, how can we refer clients to this service?' But is that a strange question to ask given the model of what you're doing?

MS MEESSEN: No, look – yeah with the Geelong Project because it's such a collaborative venture with the schools, all the referrals actually come from school wellbeing. So we don't actually accept like, referrals from other agencies or Child Protections' as such. It really actually comes from the school and what the school can pick as to who is more eligible for the Geelong Project.

MR MacKENZIE: So if that questioner comes from a community where there isn't a model operating - - -


MR MacKENZIE: - - - like this, what I would say is, this is a bottom up change movement. And we have about six, what I call initiative groups throughout Victoria. These are groups where one or two people have started to organise in their community, they might come from a school, or more likely from an agency. They're bringing people together. They want this change, there's a certain amount of discontent that they have and rightly so with the existing system. So we're working with this collectives to get to the point where we can actually get government to respond with the necessarily resources. So that this can be actually replicated in many other communities throughout Victoria which is our priority in the first instance. But also in New South Wales and elsewhere. So by all means contact us - - -


MR MacKENZIE: - - - and to talk about doing that if you're so inclined.

MR DEAN: I'm sure you'll get lots of questions through your email. I've got another question here, I'll just read it out. 'Two of your examples included family violence as a contributing factor to young peoples' homelessness. Given the demand on family violence services and their difficulty in supporting young people and minors. How did you manage those issues to provide effective and timely support to young people?'

MS MEESSEN: Very good question, look I suppose there's a few different factors. One is the changes in legislation and particularly around when we've all conducted MARAM training which is changing legislation from, like sharing information around perpetrators of family violence, as well as also being able to share information around a child's wellbeing. So I suppose with those two examples, what we've really looked at was looking at the historical context. Because with the examples that are given of historical family violence that weren't current. But with a number of young people that we have experiencing family violence, we really much liaise with Child Protection. We liaise with Orange Door, we also have a number of guest speakers that come to like professional development training for the Geelong Project workers. We implement safety plans, which is a massive thing. We do have access to some kind of brokerage where we're able to assist with easy things, such as like purchasing mobile phones, that kind of stuff for safety purposes. But really we rely on the community as – particular Orange Door around what is the best kind of processes to go around with family violence.

MR DEAN: Yeah, great, do you have anything to add to that or? No - - -

MR MacKENZIE: The only thing I'd add and Sandy's really the expert on what goes on, on the ground is that I know that when workers are out there engaging with families they often come across family conflict and violence. It may be at the point where referrals are made or notifications rather are made - - -


MR MacKENZIE: - - - but the fact is, unfortunately the response from Care and Protection is often not there.


MR MacKENZIE: Well you don't just stop working with that family or that young person. There may be a case to remove them for safety reasons. But sometimes you've actually – sometimes when people intervene in a family, things actually do improve.


MR MacKENZIE: They may not be ideal or a hundred per cent but you know, families deserve support and help and having someone do that makes a difference. So you know, you're committed to all those families you know, you do whatever you can. It's a, whatever it takes approach really. And I think you know, you could probably give many examples of how that's worked. I think it's marvellous. I think it's absolutely dedicated and high quality work of the highest order.


MR DEAN: Great. And sticking with kind of the operational aspects, the kind of on the ground things. We've got a question here which asks, 'Can you explain the typical Geelong multi-disciplinary team approach? What workers are employed?' And this kind of thing.

MS MEESSEN: Oh yeah, so when we were looking at recruiting to expand the Geelong Project team we really looked at a different like, number of skill set that we need. So we obviously have new graduates, we have workers that are experienced in working with COL community. We have mental health, so we really saw in the Geelong Project a gap between mental health services being able to provide, like a really quick response to young people that are presenting in the schools with mental health issues. So we really looked at that early mental health, early intervention role where it's a really joint venture with Headspace. And it's providing that on the ground, place based collective impact where they're at the schools providing that support. Not only to the young people but also secondary consults to the schools. And able to liaise that mental health service system where you might have a young person that required Equine Therapy or you might have a young person that is quite suicidal and need to access PHN support. When we're recruiting it's around looking at not only the data, which is the absolutely a big key player when we're recruiting because we need people that have those particular skill sets. But it also informs our PD for the workers as well. So just recently the Geelong Project team had two days of family mediation training which obviously came from the data we collected this year. So it's around, also that cross-pollination of skills where they can really share that knowledge and that skill set across to all the other teams to build up, not only their individual skill set but pass that on to the young people as well in the schools.

MR DEAN: Thank you so much David and Sandy

MS MEESSEN: No thank you.

MR DEAN: - - - for coming in and for your presentation. And thank you everyone for attending today and we'll see you again next time.



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Slide outline

1. Intervening early to prevent youth homelessness: Lessons from the Geelong Project

David MacKenzie and Sandy Meessen 
CFCA webinar 
30 October 2019

2. House keeping

  • Send through your questions via the chat box at any time during the webinar.
  • Let us know if you don’t want your question published on the online forum following the presentation.
  • All our webinars are recorded.
  • The slides are available in the handout section of Gotowebinar.
  • The audio and transcript will be posted on our website and YouTube channel in the coming week.

3. Youth homelessness in Australia

4. THE AGE – 18 July 2016: The homelessness crisis gripping Melbourne

  • The tip of the iceberg
  • Visible homelessness
  • Rough Sleeping in the CBD

5. Australian cultural definition of homelessness

Primary homelessness is experienced by people without conventional accommodation (e.g. sleeping rough or in improvised dwellings)

Secondary homelessness is experienced by people who frequently move from one temporary shelter to another (e.g. emergency accommodation, youth refuges, "couch surfing"

Tertiary homelessness is experienced by people staying in accommodation that falls below minimum community standards (e.g. boarding housing and caravan parks)

6. Some historical milestones in youth homelessness policy and programs

A. Supported Accommodation & Assistance Program (1985-2009)

  • Joint jurisdictional homelessness services program

B. Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1989)

  • Commissioner Brian Burdekin conducted first national human rights inquiry – major public exposure.

C. PM Taskforce (1996) – Reconnect Program (1997)

  • First early intervention program for young people.

D. National Youth Commission (2007-2008)

  • Independent national inquiry – 400 page report, 80 recommendations, together with the film The Oasis.

E. The Road Home – Federal Government White Paper (Dec 2008)

  • Framework still shapes policy/ programs despite changes of Federal Government

7. Homelessness statistics in Australia


  • 116,000 men, women and children homeless on Census night


  • 288, 273 individuals including children per year
    • 42,131 young people 15-24 years on their own
    • 84,709 young parents under 25 years and children
    • 161,433 older adults

8. Youth homelessness over time

Alt text: Graph showing the rates of homelessness for 15-24 year olds’ from 2000- 2018.


10. What the ‘system’ looks like from young person’s perspective

Alt text: Image result for crossed telephone lines

11. Changing our thinking?

Alt text: Picture of coffee cup on a napkin with the words the same old thinking leads to the same old results in a loop


Alt text: Cartoon of two old men standing at a chalk board with an equation on the board. There are 2 equations on the board. The first is a simple A arrow to B. the second is a complex mix of arrows and Asterix. Caption reads ‘Actually I think you’ll find it’s really more like this’.

13. From lived experience to systems thinking

Alt text: Graphic depicting the relationship between lived experience and system thinking

14. Adolescent Homelessness 

Early school leaving → At-risk of homelessness →YOUTH HOMELESSNESS→ At-risk of early leaving school

15. Adolescent Homelessness: A STOCK AND FLOW SYSTEM DIAGRAM

Alt text: Graphic depiction of the stock and flow system. Arrow in a straight line from ’flow in’ early intervention through specialist homelessness services and ‘flow out’ that included housing, education training and employment pathways.

16. Status quo of homelessness response

Prevention → Emergency response → Housing and support

17. How to act DIFFERENTLY

18. System reform actions

5 things we need to do

19. (2) Support young people exiting care and custodial systems

  • Foster care
  • Institutional care
  • Custodial care

20. (3) Systems-based approach to early intervention

Alt text: Graphic depiction of systems based approach to early intervention. Box in the middle with small boxes with dotted lines connected to the big box

21. Early Intervention Models

  • Strengthening family & natural supports
  • SHS system diversion
  • Community-based early intervention
  • Eviction prevention
  • School-based early intervention
  • Home-based placements

22. (4) What about housing for young people?

  • Rapid rehousing;
  • 'Transitional' social housing;
  • Affordable secure housing;

23. (5) ‘Duty to Assist’

Alt text: Infographic showing UN Rights of the child → Legislation, policy and practice.

24. What the future of the homelessness response needs to look

Prevention → Emergency response → Housing and supports

25. What is the COSS MODEL?

26. The ’community of schools & services’ model [THE COSS MODEL]

Collaboration - Organise a community collective of agencies and schools

Identify at-risk young people - Screen the school population to identify young people before crises occur

PRACTICE FRAMEWORK - Work with a cohort of vulnerable youth and their families throughout adolescence

OUTCOME MEASUREMENT - Measure the outcomes continuously to inform practice

COLLABORATION: Building a community collective …

IDENTIFY AT-RISK YOUNG PEOPLE: Population screening and the AIAD survey

Population breakdown of identifiable at-risk groups – Geelong 2017

– a tiered response

31. Tamara – 14 years old A TIER 1 RESPONSE

  • Tamara was identified through the screening process;
  • there was a history of family violence and conflict;
  • started to skip classes;
  • the school had made a ChildFirst referral but Tamara was on a 6-week waiting list;
  • The Geelong Project intervened


  • Tamara settled down;
  • Joined local football club;
  • Relationship with mum improved;
  • School attendance improved;

32. Jason – 15 years old A TIER 2 RESPONSE

  • Jason was identified through the screening process;
  • he had a history of mental health concerns and was very disengaged from school;
  • Mum was supportive but struggling;
  • Jason had moved three schools over 18 months;
  • Jason was not taking medications;
  • He wanted to go back to school


  • Regular support meetings with Jason;
  • Family support successful;
  • Supported to return to school – initially difficult but ultimately successful;
  • Jason attending Equine Therapy but reluctant to access other mental health services;

33. Emily – 17 years old A TIER 3 RESPONSE

  • Emily referred by school because of homelessness;
  • Living with ex-boyfriend in toxic and abusive relationship;
  • Not lived with her family for over 2 years;
  • Close to dropping out of school 10 weeks before finishing Year 12;
  • Needed to find work to support herself.


  • Worker attempts sort out complex family situation – no easy option;
  • Housing – Emily enters Horizon House within 2 weeks;
  • Emily finished Year 12;
  • Relationship with sister improved;
  • Now living independently doing TAFE.

34. SYSTEMIC BACKBONE SUPPORT: Longitudinal measurement of Outcomes and the development of a deliverological culture

  • Alt text: The Geelong Project: Early Intervention Pilot Program Logic.
  • Screenshot of the Geelong Project: Outcomes Measurement Plan (Stage 2)
  • Screenshot of the Australian Index of adolescent development assessment form.
  • Diagram showing the Functional Structure of the e-Wellbeing IT Platform
  • Innovation;
  • Iterative & agile;
  • Practical & constructive;
  • Creative problem-solving;
  • Developmental evaluation.

35. Number of homeless adolescents: Geelong. 2002-2007

Alt text: Graph showing the number of homeless adolescents in Geelong btw 2002 and 2013. no measurement in 2014 then 2015 - 2017

36. Early school leavers: Geelong 2011-2016 compared with pilot schools

Alt text: Graph showing 3 lines Geelong school leavers from 2011 to 2016. The graph compares all school leavers the Geelong project pilot schools.

37. What kind of model is COSS?

38. What needs to change?

Individual program impact

  • Specialised agendas
  • Fragmented measurement
  • Independent activities
  • Sporadic communication
  • Unsupported efforts

Collective impact

  • Common agendas
  • Shared measurement
  • Mutually reinforcing activities
  • Continuous communication
  • Backbone support

Mutually reinforcing activities

  • Early intervention;
  • Coordinated client intake;
  • Youth-centred family-focused casework;
  • Flexible practice framework.

Shared dialogue and decisions

  • TGP Executive Governance Group
  • TGP Operational Group
  • Community stakeholders

Backbone support

  • Community Development;
  • Project Coordinator;
  • Development of a more integrated local service system.


A common agenda

  • Reformed local service system;
  • Community collaboration;
  • Reduced crises through proactive pre-crisis interventions.

Shared data and analysis

  • Dedicated data support;
  • AIAD indicators;
  • Longitudinal outcomes measurement; informing practice.

40. WOW: The Geelong Project goes global!

Alt text: Screenshot of a news paper article about the success of the Geelong project

41. The challenge of change

A big new idea - Place-based collective impact

42. Continue the conversation…

Please submit questions or comments on the online forum following today’s webinar.

Related resources

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David is an Associate Professor at the University of South Australia with a strong record of research and development on youth issues and youth policy, and is widely recognised for his work on youth homelessness and disadvantage. In 2007/08, he was one of the four commissioners responsible for the influential National Youth Commission Inquiry into Youth Homelessness. David is the founder and current Chair of Youth Development Australia, a charitable non-government organisation that operates as a platform for change responsible for the current National Youth Commission into Youth Employment and Transition and the National Youth Homelessness Conference in March 2019. David is also the founding Director of Upstream Australia, a consortium that provides systemic backbone support for the development of the community of schools and services (COSS) model of early intervention across Australia.

Sandy is the Team Leader of the Geelong Project at Barwon Child Youth and Family. Sandy’s role oversees the early intervention team and the day-to-day work of delivering early intervention through the COSS model lens. The COSS model is based on deep collaboration with key stakeholders and the use of data to inform practice, thereby ensuring evidence-based outcomes. Sandy has a Bachelor of Criminology from Deakin University. She has worked in the community sector for 11 years in several on-the-ground and leadership roles in child protection, out-of-home care and youth services. Sandy has a passion for working with young people and believes that the key to preventing homelessness and disengagement of education is working not only with the young person, but also their family.

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