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A roof over every head

8 Apr 2008

Homelessness will be a test of the Rudd government, write DAVID MacKENZIE and DAVID ELDRIDGE from the National Youth Commission Inquiry into Youth Homelessness

NEARLY two decades after the landmark Our Homeless Children report, youth homelessness is worse than it was when commissioner Brian Burdekin conducted his inquiry. On the best statistical evidence, youth homelessness in Australia has doubled. Yet, over the same period Australia has experienced strong economic growth, falling unemployment and a generally stronger economic position. How can this be explained?

Youth homelessness is the fallout from three decades of social and economic change. Major changes in family and social life include no-fault divorce and women entering the workforce. Single parenting is more common, casual and part-time work has grown at the expense of full-time permanent employment, and few young people move into the workforce as teenagers, remaining in the education system for longer.

Taken one by one, few would seriously want to reverse these social changes. But taken together, there are some adverse outcomes, and homelessness is one of them.

At the same time, domestic violence and sexual abuse in families remain serious issues. Hard drugs are more prevalent. Decades of under-investment and ill-advised market incentives have produced what is being described as an affordable-housing crisis, affecting not only the most disadvantaged families but many middle-income families with mortgages. Young people whose families have failed them early on and who have been taken into state care are particularly vulnerable.

If a young person is forced to leave home at 16 or 17 because their family situation is untenable, it is almost impossible for them to find a job and accommodation without help. Homelessness is a real prospect for young people who have had to take this course.

Following the 1989 Burdekin report, commissioned by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, the then federal government announced $100 million in assistance over four years. Since then, the only significant Commonwealth initiative has been the Reconnect program in 1999, which provided early intervention, reconciliation and mediation for at-risk and homeless youth and their families. This $20 million program was never sufficient to cover more than about one-third of communities. There was no strategy for dealing with homelessness, and no national plan.

The National Youth Commission Inquiry into Youth Homelessness, which publishes its report (0) (PDF) today, makes 80 detailed recommendations framed by an agenda of ten core strategic actions.

First, there has to be a national framework and a national homelessness action plan that sets the aspirational goal of eliminating homelessness over 25 years. Such a plan requires targets over the short, medium and long term, strategies for how to reach these targets, and strong mechanisms for translating national policy objectives into measurable results. Second, service provision and resource allocation will need to be refocused to serve what we have termed “communities of youth services” in which people can work together, solve problems and take responsibility.

Some resources will be required to support this kind of community development, but it will have benefits across different issues and sectors, not just homelessness.

Affordable housing has become a national political issue and the housing crisis affects not just disadvantaged families and young people but a much wider section of society. Government action has been foreshadowed, but the scale of what is required is very large and will cost billions. The needs of young people need to be explicitly addressed. There is no prospect of reducing the number of homeless young people without early intervention and prevention. Funding for the existing Reconnect program, one of the most important initiatives in the past 15 years, needs to be trebled to $60 million to ensure that every Australian community has a capacity to work with at-risk and recently homeless young people.

We also need early intervention to assist at-risk families. This has the potential to stem the flow of families entering homeless services. Altogether about 55,000 children pass through services, accompanying their parent or parents. Much of this could be prevented at an estimated annual cost of $60 million to $90 million.

State care and protection systems are in a permanent state of crisis and require a major overhaul. The Commonwealth, which is intervening in indigenous communities on protection and neglect issues, needs also to accept responsibility for what happens to non-indigenous young people in communities across Australia. Young people who have been in care are a group particularly vulnerable to becoming homeless.

The services for homeless young people have not been funded sufficiently to keep up with real cost increases, and this needs urgent redress to ensure that all communities have a range of appropriate services to help young people who are homeless.

Services struggle to deal with young people with high and complex needs, such as those with a serious mental illness combined with drug addictions. Some serious reform is required in the way specialist services such as mental health, drug and alcohol, and employment services operate for homeless young people.

The government has promised $150 million for housing for the homeless, and as about one-third of the homeless are young people, we should expect about $50 million over the next few years to go into youth housing. This will be a good beginning for what will need to be developed as a new type of youth housing in the community.

The Rudd government has made homelessness a priority issue. It has made a positive start with its green and white paper process. But homelessness is one of the more challenging and complex problems it faces. Practical reform to achieve new forms of joined-up government and social programs is overdue, especially as the new problems facing the nation require an unprecedented degree of strategic and long-term bipartisan action. However, this reform agenda will not be simple to enact and the inertia of existing practices and habits is considerable. Australian political parties and governments will have to change the way they have typically behaved.

Bipartisanship already exists and should be maintained as far as is possible. But short-term political thinking synchronised to electoral cycles must give way to a larger-scale vision, long-term strategic planning and sustained implementation. In the present Australian economic context, the acid test of success will not be how much money the Rudd government spends on youth homelessness during its first term, but whether the right policy settings have been put in place, and whether it demonstrates a strong commitment to progressively fund these strategies for the next five, ten or 20 years.

Ironically, homelessness - the issue that everyone thought did not count in the political process - has become the first social policy test for the government.

David Mackenzie from the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology, and the Salvation Army’s Major David Eldridge were commissioners on the National Youth Commission inquiry.

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