A place to lay your head

Homelessness comes at a high cost to society and the individual. It can threaten physical and mental health, and make simple activities, like going to school or getting a job, incredibly difficult. In the words of one research participant, “the scariest thing that has happened to me was being homeless, even for a short time”. Swinburne research is helping to reduce the risk of homelessness for young Australians.

On any given night in Australia, more than 100,000 Australians are homeless. Around 42% of these are young people aged under 25. Homeless people include those sleeping on the streets, in cars, at crisis centres, at other people’s places because they have nowhere else to go, and in overcrowded accommodation.

We're trying to understand and prevent youth homelessness

Swinburne research has made inroads into understanding and preventing youth homelessness.

In a significant breakthrough, Swinburne researchers developed a screening tool to predict homelessness. The researchers had examined the causes of homelessness over two decades, and identified factors that meant someone was at high risk of becoming homeless. This understanding formed the basis of the tool, which was developed by Swinburne in collaboration with the youth agencies Time for Youth and Barwon Youth, and the service provider Geelong Early Intervention Working Group.

In 2013, the tool was trialled in three high schools in Geelong, where it identified at-risk students. Those students were supported through counselling and monitoring, which significantly reduced the numbers of students using homelessness services in the Geelong community.

And it seems to be working

After the program was established, Geelong’s Specialist Homelessness Service recorded a 43% drop in the number of new users of the service, from an average of 230 per year (between 2003 and 2013) to an average of 130 per year in 2016/17.

In 2018, the Victorian Government allocated $2.8 million to extend the project to four more high schools in Geelong. In addition, the tool has now been trialled by public agencies in New South Wales, South Australia and Canada, and interest has been expressed by organisations in Queensland, Canberra and Albury–Wodonga.

So we're looking deeper

Swinburne researchers have also investigated couch surfing and early-stage homelessness in high school students, and the costs, predictors and impacts of youth homelessness. Importantly, their research has led to better collaborations between schools and youth homelessness service providers.

The research has also supported the development of effective new outreach services for vulnerable youth. For example, the findings of the Yarra Ranges Youth Homelessness Prevention Project helped to develop national workshops to help schools to identify and assist young homeless people. To date, outreach programs have been conducted in 57 schools, reaching 5,943 high school students across most Australian states. Anchor, another not-for-profit youth-focused welfare agency, has conducted focus groups and information sessions with local school teachers and welfare personnel, held youth forums and engaged community groups.

… [the project] precipitated several immediate direct interventions and inspired forums and ongoing working groups … [The findings] have changed the way our service and others view this problem and the way we should be looking at addressing it.

Anchor

In addition, Swinburne research has prompted an increase in resources and outreach services for vulnerable youth. The projects have received national and international media attention, and government ministers have launched and tabled reports in parliament, which has raised awareness of the issue among the general public, government and funding bodies. This awareness-raising has resulted in substantially more resources from government, local businesses and community organisations being allocated to aid homeless youth.

Community groups, including Mission Australia and the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, have used Swinburne research for advocacy to drive change and increase resources. The Swinburne research team has also directly engaged with government and community stakeholders – through presentations, consultation and membership of various homeless prevention working groups – to ensure the outcomes of their research are disseminated as widely as possible to effect real change.

Project leads: Professor David MacKenzie and Associate Professor Monica Thielking

You can find more articles on youth homelessness on Swinburne's Analysis and Policy Observatory.