The Geelong Project is a place-based, ‘community of schools and youth services’ approach to early intervention using population screening, a flexible practice framework and youth-focused, family-centred case management. The model builds in longitudinal follow-up and support to reduce homelessness, and achieve sustainable education and lifetime outcomes. The model and the current project has grown out of a collaboration between university researchers and the Geelong Early Intervention Working Group, comprised of service providers and schools. The approach to early intervention is ‘indicative prevention’ whereby the risk levels of individuals are identified and appropriate responses enabled. This is proactive rather than reactive, and the support for at-risk students and their families is needs-based, comprehensive and flexible. The project involves several major innovations.
The first innovation is the way in which students at-risk of homelessness are identified. Population screening for risk is carried out using a short Student Needs Survey (SNS). The SNS is completed by every secondary student in a school and results are matched with a separate list of school identified at-risk students (local knowledge). A follow-up brief screening interview is then conducted. The screening interview checks whether or not their information about risk is valid and current and engages the student with The Geelong Project. Referrals to case management are then jointly decided between The Geelong Project team and schools.
A second innovation is in service delivery. The Geelong Project Practice Framework provides for a differentiated three level response: (a) Tier One - a non-case work response, either active monitoring by school staff, or a secondary consultation where a referral is made to another program or agency or some advice given to a non-TGP action; (b) Tier Two – case work support, either a brief counselling-type of case work or case management by The Geelong Project; and (c) Tier Three – wrap-around case management for complex cases requiring the formal involvement of several agencies. Youth-focused and family-centred case management means that direct engagement and support is provided to a young person as the client, but also, work with family members is undertaken. The support work involves both community sector workers and school staff working together in a more coordinated, interprofessionally collaborative type of practice.
A third innovation is the way ‘collaboration’ is and will be operationalised. This requires inter-agency agreements between various parties. In Geelong, an eWellbeing IT Platform is being built to facilitate the more complex information needs and flows of a whole of community more integrated local support system. This platform will allow the efficient tracking of young people at risk of homelessness within and between agencies.
The SNS survey, currently being further developed, has proven to be a practical tool for identifying risk. The profile of the ‘risk of homelessness’ for Geelong students is one per cent of students at high risk (i.e., a score of 9-10 out of 10) and another three to four per cent where risk is indicated (i.e., a score of 7-8). Students at-risk of homelessness are also more likely to be at risk on other issues as well. These results are consistent with earlier research. In a school of 1000 students, on average, about 10 might be at high risk and for another 30-40 risk is indicated. But, there is considerable variation between schools. Risk of homelessness is somewhat higher for females, and significantly higher for Indigenous students.
For about half (51%) of the highly at-risk students and about two-thirds (66%) of student with an indication of risk, school is OK compared with other students. This is an important finding because it means that at-risk students are not necessarily failing at school, although they are at higher risk of disengaging from school and becoming early school leavers. The SNS produced new data on couch-surfing suggesting that while many young people at risk couch-surf at times, the number doing so on any one night is probably less than previously thought, however this can occur on numerous occasions throughout the year.
Data on risk was used to demonstrate how estimates of youth homelessness can be constructed from whole of school data, and also how the extent of need for early intervention can be estimated.
Reconnect is an important program that the evidence suggests has contributed significantly to reducing youth homelessness. An appreciative critique of the Reconnect program has contributed to the approach adopted by The Geelong Project. A premise of the new reformed model is that schools need to be connected in a systemic way with youth agencies that engage in a range of early intervention activities, including and most importantly family support work. In order to meet all the needs of young people and their families, this requires a place-based communitywide organisation of schools and services, not just bilateral ‘referral-based’ relations between some schools and agencies who only fulfil a certain function.