The youth homelessness crisis is having a massive effect on the education of children and young people in Victoria, campaigners warn, as they call on the state government to follow the Greens and the Liberals in backing a strategy to counter it.
Of the 8,830 young people who approached homelessness services last year, 5,060 were turned away, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Peak bodies are calling on the major parties to build 5,000 new homes for young people over the next four years.
Melbourne City Mission data reveals that of the 172 15- to 19-year-olds who sought help from MCM for homelessness in 2021-22, just 14% were enrolled in school and 13% were enrolled in other training.
Over the past five years, 63% of the young people returned at least twice, with some attending more than 10 times.
Kaitlyne, 26, spent years sleeping on friends’ and extended family members’ couches after their home became unsafe.
“Year 9 was when shit hit the fan,” said Kaitlyne, who did not want their last name published. “That’s kind of really where the couch surfing and moving around a lot really picked up.
“For a large period, I didn’t consider myself homeless – I just knew it wasn’t something that I wanted to share. My friends saw me as shady or suspicious, because they were like, ‘Oh, we haven’t been to your house.’”
After staying on every couch Kaitlyne could think of, they moved back home. “Basically I had to live with [my parents again] and that eventually broke down so I went to go see homelessness services.
“When I went, I wasn’t pregnant, I wasn’t using drugs. Still didn’t change the fact that I was homeless [but] it was like I had to be at a perfect level of risk for them to take me in.”
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In year 12 Kaitlyne dropped out of school and moved in with their new partner. They later completed a Tafe course and now work in homeless advocacy for Berry Street’s Y-Change initiative, a team of people who have experienced socioeconomic disadvantage.
Overwhelmingly, young students experiencing homelessness are escaping family violence. Despite this, the state has no youth homelessness strategy in place.
Kaitlyne wants a strategy to include investment in early inventions, such as trauma-informed training for teachers to support students, additional funding for lived-experience working groups, and more public housing.
The acting chief executive of Melbourne’s Council to Homeless Persons, Kate Colvin, said: “If you’re unable to live safely at home, and you’re on the move because you are couch surfing, it’s really very difficult to stay in school. Their whole world is disrupted.”
Even if young people can get into refuges, she said, they were often only given six-week placements. “There is very limited longer-term housing option for young people who can’t return safely to their families,” Colvin said. “It can be children as young as 13 to 14 are then left couch surfing with acquaintances, friends, families …
“Where we can solve homelessness for most adults by providing a home, for a 13-year-old, or 19-year-old who has had a traumatic experience, they will need some support to manage a time of their life that involves a lot of transitions.”
The Liberal spokesperson on housing, Richard Riordan, said that, if the Coalition won Saturday’s state election, he would implement a youth homelessness strategy and work to better link education and housing support.
“Increasing supply is the only solution to getting a roof over our young people’s heads,” Riordan said. “The current Victorian government has too often turned its back on groups, agencies and housing providers who could be effective partners in solving this problem.
“It has been a huge misallocation of resources to have spent $5.5bn on a big housing build to end up with a net decrease over the last eight years in the available housing stock.”
Under the Greens’ youth housing guarantee, Victorians under 25 would be guaranteed appropriate housing when contacting a homelessness service.
Labor’s minister for housing, Danny Pearson, did not reply to Guardian Australia’s questions but has been on the campaign trail spruiking his party’s 2020 big housing build policy, “the single biggest investment in social housing in Australian history”, meant to provide 10,000 renovated or new social and affordable homes by 2025.
The chief executive of MCM, Vicki Sutton, said the state urgently needed 5,000 houses and a strategy for schools to recognise and support people who don’t have a safe home.
“We’re seeing young people’s mental health decline while they live in a constant state of fear and uncertainty about where they’re going to sleep each night,” Sutton said.
“They are part of the overall homelessness system – which is designed for adults. They don’t get access to private rentals, and they’re often not able to access social housing.”
A strategy would help students instead of punishing them, she said.
“They’re blamed for their inability to keep up with schoolwork and labelled as not trying hard enough.”
• In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. The crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International and befrienders.org