When you picture someone who is homeless, what’s the first image that comes to mind?
Are they old or young? Are they living on the streets, or sleeping on a friend’s couch?
The reality is that homelessness is on the rise among children and young people aged 12–24, but we can’t always see it.
In the words of Jacob, who first experienced homelessness as a young teen: “Teenagers aren’t often the demographic that comes to mind when people think ‘homeless’ because they’re young and afraid. I was always in my car or on someone else’s couch. I would never be out in the open.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 1 in 20 young Australians have experienced homelessness for the first time.
At the same time, the cost of living crisis is making it harder for young people to access safe and secure accommodation.
Now, more than ever, youth homelessness matters.
Keep reading to discover five important facts you should know about youth homelessness in Australia.
Fact #1: On any given night, around 40,000 young Australians are homeless or at risk of homelessness
But it’s likely that the real number of young people living without safe and stable housing is much higher.
Hidden homelessness can be difficult to identify, as young people may move between refuges or stay with friends or relatives rather than sleep rough on the streets.
Click here to learn more about primary, secondary and tertiary forms of homelessness – all of which are underreported and often ‘hidden’ in Australia.
Fact #2: The main causes of youth homelessness are domestic and family violence, poverty and the housing crisis
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 35% of young people presenting alone for homelessness services across Australia have experienced domestic and family violence.
At Youth Off The Streets, this number is even higher: last year, 75% of young people accessing our homelessness services said DFV was the main reason for their homelessness or a contributing factor.
A lack of social housing and suitable income support – combined with an increasingly expensive private rental market – are also preventing young Australians from finding permanent housing, especially those living on or below the poverty line.
The housing crisis, including eviction, was the main cause of homelessness for 19% of young people last year.
Overall, though, family violence is the main reason that children and young people are forced into homelessness.
As a teenager, Luke endured years of his father’s physical and emotional abuse before he became homeless.
“Dad kicked me out and changed all the locks on the doors,” says Luke.
“He told me that I wasn’t legally allowed on his property anymore and if I was caught, he’d charge me with breaking and entering.”
Luke became homeless after surviving domestic and family violence.
Fact #3: Couch surfing is the most common form of homelessness among young people
This type of hidden homelessness is a temporary arrangement in which young people sleep on the couches of relatives, friends or acquaintances.
Brisbane Youth Service recently reported that 59% of the young people who sought their help had experienced couch surfing.
Couch surfers are at high risk of financial and sexual exploitation. They can also be cast out onto the streets at any time.
Chelsea, a young person supported by Youth Off The Streets, was 13 when she became homeless. She has felt the fear and vulnerability of couch surfing.
“For years, it felt like I was missing a foundation,” she says. “The floor beneath me was constantly moving, and I didn’t know when it might collapse.”
Fact #4: Nearly half of all young people experiencing homelessness have mental health issues
This statistic is unsurprising, given that mental ill-health increases a young person’s risk of homelessness.
In turn, homelessness can compound their trauma, and trigger or worsen mental health issues.
The stresses of homelessness can cause anxiety, depression and sleeplessness while exacerbating conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Chelsea became depressed after several years of homelessness and turned to alcohol to cope.
“I had to dodge so many obstacles to survive,” she remembers.
“It should be simple, but I had to think, ‘Do I have money to buy food? Do I have a roof over my head tonight? Will I be safe where I’m staying?’”
Luke, like Chelsea, has recovered from substance misuse and now has a safe and stable place to call home. But he still feels the psychological effects of long-term homelessness.
“Living that way hurt my mental health, and I still suffer from anxiety, depression and a sleep disorder,” he says.
The longer a young person lives without a safe home, the higher the risk that they will develop a serious mental illness.
Chelsea has overcome her experiences of homelessness and mental ill-health.
Fact #5: Youth homelessness costs Australia $626 million each year
Even a brief episode of homelessness puts children and young people at high risk of further experiences of homelessness and disadvantage later in life.
Early intervention programs are critical to breaking cycles of homelessness, poverty, substance misuse and poor mental health.
Preventing children young people from becoming homeless in the first place could save an estimated $626 million per year across the youth justice and health services systems alone.
Every child and young person deserves a safe and stable place to call home.
We’re calling on the Federal Government to develop a National Strategy to End Child and Youth Homelessness.
Change the life of a young person experiencing homelessness.
Homelessness and housing services
Find out about the accommodation and support services that we offer to young people in need.