In Summary

A new study has found that community service groups and schools need to work closer together to assist and prevent homelessness in secondary school youth.

Being launched today by Minister for Education, James Merlino, the report, Couch Surfing Secondary Students: The Yarra Ranges Youth Homelessness Prevention Project, was conducted by Swinburne University of Technology, The University of Western Australia Centre for Social Impact (UWA CSI), Anchor and Victorian learning and employment network OELLEN.

In-depth interviews were conducted with 21 young people from the Yarra Ranges in Melbourne’s outer east who had experienced homelessness during secondary school. Seventeen teachers and support staff from the area were also interviewed. 

Incredibly, 30 per cent of the sample reported that they had first run away from home during primary school, with the average age being ten. Of this group, 50 per cent had slept rough in open spaces such as a park or local oval.

Lead researcher and Swinburne academic, Dr Monica Thielking, said there had been a significant increase in homeless youth approaching staff at their school for help after they first started running away.

“The usage of school counsellors jumped from 22 per cent to 42 per cent and the usage of teachers rose from 11 per cent to 37 per cent.

“This highlights the important role that schools have in identifying and intervening early, to support young people experiencing early stage homelessness,” Dr Thielking said.

The research also found that young people in the study faced repeated difficulty in maintaining stable accommodation and attending school.

Despite this, 48 per cent of the young people surveyed were still enrolled at secondary school at the time of survey completion.

Deputy Premier welcomes report

Education Minister James Merlino said the study into couch-surfing drives home the huge impact that disadvantage can have on a young person’s success at school.

“That’s why the Victorian Government is helping families who are struggling to afford the extra costs of education with an extra $180 million to provide the things that students need to fit in and thrive,” he said.

“Prep to Grade 3 students in 250 disadvantaged schools will get free eye tests and glasses and we will be providing free school breakfast to 25,000 students.

“Our new Camps, Sports and Excursions Fund will help 200,000 disadvantaged families afford these expensive but essential parts of a child’s education and we have expanded the free uniform, shoes and books program run by State Schools’ Relief.”

Perceptions of homelessness

Professor Paul Flatau of the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Social Impact, who co-authored the report, said that one of the most surprising findings was that many of the young people did not see themselves as being homeless even though they were.

“When we interviewed the sample, 48 per cent had never actually considered themselves to be homeless, even though they all had been. They didn’t consider staying with friends or extended family temporarily because home was not a safe place to be as a defining feature of homelessness. Many were also not aware of the services available to support them with their homelessness issues.

“It was also interesting that for those who did consider themselves homeless, they first did homeless at the age of sixteen. This is two years, on average, after they actually first experienced homelessness,” Professor Flatau said.

Secondary school students do not know how to get help

Teachers and support staff in the study also reported that their students often approached them for help before seeking help from homeless youth services, because of established relationships and because they saw school as a safe and familiar place.

Professor Flatau suggested that both schools and homeless services needed to understand better the language and ‘world-view’ of young people, particularly how they define and experience homelessness, and work with them on their own terms.

Dr Thielking said there was an obvious need for improved connections between homeless services and schools that would assist in developing better early intervention services, which would lessen the incidence of youth homelessness.

“These young people are trying to seek help, but don’t know how. We need to work on equipping schools with the resources to support students and integrate homeless youth services into schools, as well as educating staff and students about the services available to them.”

Read the full report.