According to the 2011 Census, some 44,000 children and young people in Australia are homeless. The reality is worse; many others are ‘hidden homeless’ who are not counted in the official statistics.
There is a growing body of evidence being developed about the true picture of child and youth homelessness. Our own primary research, the Mission Australia Youth Survey, gives a special insight into the housing experiences of young people across Australia and from different socio-economic backgrounds, which is rare in the youth homelessness literature.
What does child and youth homelessness look like?
The Youth Survey uncovered a substantial number of young people experiencing housing instability, frequently as a result of family breakdown or conflict, which may impact negatively on their schooling, support networks, community connections and familial bonds.
It also revealed that nearly one in seven young Australians responding to the survey had spent time away from home because they couldn’t return, a proxy indicator for couch surfing. The vast majority of these young people had done so on more than one occasion and some had typically stayed away for periods longer than six months.
The Youth Survey’s findings point to the existence of a critical group of young couch surfers with poor family relationships, experiencing family conflict, not feeling confident about the future, unsure of their ability to cope with stress, concerned about depression and suicide, who leave home repeatedly, often for extended periods, because they feel they can’t stay with their families at home.
The Youth Survey’s finding of the prevalence of family conflict and couch surfing is also reflected in other recent Australian research. Family conflict affects 1.9 million Australian children in their early to middle years. Over 85% of homeless young people had spent time couch surfing before they were 18. Even amongst non-homeless young people, 38% had couch surfed at some point.
These young people are on a pathway to entrenched homelessness unless action is taken.