We know the journey into adulthood can be a bumpy ride, with many challenges to overcome. Some arise as a normal part of adolescence, such as the shifting reliance from family to friends, study stress, or developing their own identity. But for too many young people their journey can be laden with extra challenges, such as experiencing mental illness and family conflict, which often leads to episodes of couch surfing away from their family.
Couch surfing is often the first and most common way that young people experience homelessness. We know that adolescents who couch surf “ that is, when they stay for short periods of time on couches, floors or in other insecure housing situations with relatives or friends“ are at a greater risk of homelessness later in life.
For many young people who feel they can’t go back home because of family conflict, violence or for other reasons, what starts as sporadic couch surfing can unfortunately turn into more entrenched homelessness.
For many years here at Mission Australia, we have advocated on behalf of young people using our Youth Survey as a platform to gather their concerns, values and aspirations.
Earlier this year we co-authored a Youth Survey report with the Black Dog Institute looking at young people and mental illness over the past five years and prior to that we produced a report on young people and homelessness. I found both reports to be alarming, with almost one in four young people reporting mental illness (a significant increase from five years ago) and a staggering one in seven young people reporting couch surfing.
In our recent Youth Mental Health and Homelessness Report, we took a deep dive into these findings to see how mental illness and homelessness were linked.
The report showed that young people with a probable serious mental illness are three and a half times more likely to have spent time away from home than those without a probable serious mental illness. And, the likelihood that a young person would spend more occasions away from home increased if they had a probable serious mental illness. While I wasn’t surprised at the findings, I am very concerned about these young people.
We also found that family relationships are incredibly important in protecting young people from homelessness. Those young people with a probable serious mental illness and poor family functioning were far more likely to spend time away from home than those young people with a probable serious mental illness who had positive family relationships.
We must act early and address the issues that lead to young people leaving home. We need to actively build strong family relationships, ensure schools are equipped to identify students who may be in need of support, as well as provide targeted support and early intervention when it’s needed.
When a young person has a safe and secure home, this provides a firm foundation from which they can grow and thrive. It allows them to build strong social relationships, and to study, learn a trade or embark on their chosen career.
There are a range of evidence-based specialist services that can support young people experiencing homelessness to find their way, connect them to expert help including for mental illness, reconcile with family if that’s safe and possible, or if not, find supportive accommodation. But workers in these services are over-stretched and under-resourced. But with greater investment, more young people can be supported.
We urgently need more targeted and holistic early intervention services so we can adequately address the issues faced by young people before they become homeless, as well as increased investment in social and affordable housing and supported accommodation models for young people.
The findings in this report are incredibly concerning and I strongly urge governments of all levels to commit to halving youth homelessness by 2020. Major investment in supporting youth mental health initiatives is of utmost importance to reduce the numbers of young people being pushed into homelessness.
All young people deserve a safe home and we have the means to provide it. All that is needed is the political will and the commitment from us all as a community.