Youth Homelessness – Structural Factors
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Homelessness is a social problem in Australia. Youth homelessness in Australia has been on the increase due to several factors, and it is assumed that these factors may assist in the intervention and prevention of youth homelessness. The only way to decrease youth homelessness is to address the structural factors that cause it. This paper will begin by defining homelessness according to the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994 and by other prominent authors of youth homelessness. Structural factors will be then discussed, including unemployment and lack of affordable housing, as prominent causes for the increase in youth homelessness.
It will be argued that the Australian ‘nuclear’ family has changed since the 1970’s and has contributed to why some individuals or families face homelessness more than others. Government responses to youth homelessness, especially after the release of the Burdekin Report, will be examined, specifically the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP) and the Reconnect Program. SAAP, being the primary focus, will be examined to determine whether the program is adequate in breaking the homelessness cycle.
Crane & Brannock (1996, p. 7) argue that the way in which homelessness is defined affects the way research is carried out and what policies are pursued. What is homelessness? Homelessness is defined in terms of the character of a person’s housing situation and adequacy (Crane & Brannock, 1996, p. 6). This definition is backed up by the Supported Accommodations Assistance Act 1994 that states that a ‘person is homeless if, and only if, he or she has inadequate access to safe and secure housing’ (S. 4.1 ). There are a variety of factors that contribute to the cause of homelessness amongst young people. Various studies have been initiated to investigate these factors to develop prevention and intervention strategies for youth homelessness. The most prominent of these studies was Our Homeless Children, conducted by Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commissioner Brian Burdekin, commonly known as the Burdekin Report.
The factors causing homelessness can be broken down into three different categories: structural, external and situational (Fopp 1993; Sheridan et al. 1983; Morgan & Vincent 1987 cited in Crane & Brannock 1996, p. 7). Structural factors, being the prominent focus in this paper, have had a dominant effect on youth homelessness since the 1980’s and 1990’s. Structural factors are defined as being related to social, economic and family structure. The key structural factors that lead to youth homelessness as described by Chamberlain (1994, p. 15) are unemployment and lack of affordable housing. Dywer (1989, p. 12) specifies that the Burdekin Report indicate that the structural causes of youth homelessness are also unemployment, housing policy, inadequate incomes as well as lack of community support and services. The rise in youth unemployment, as seen by both authors, is a distinguished cause of youth homelessness.
In Australia, the long-term underlying trend of unemployment has been distinctly upward since the 1970’s (White & Wyn, 2004, p. 169). Since employment is an opportunity to escape homelessness, the rise in unemployment amongst young people has contributed considerably to homelessness. The lack of affordable housing, as Crane and Brannock (1996, p. 9) discuss, can be associated with a combination of low incomes and high housing costs as well as other factors such as discrimination against young people in gaining rental accommodation, inadequacy of wages, lack of access to jobs, and unsuitable housing. Although structural factors affect the risk factors they cannot pre-determine that family conflict will lead to homelessness (Chamberlain, 1994, p. 16).
While structural factors are important for explaining the increase in youth homelessness between the 1970’s and present (Chamberlain & Mackenzie, 1994, p. 8), there are other factors that help us to understand youth homelessness and why some families meet the structural challenges less well than others. Situational factors are those that arise from an individual’s immediate relations, most significantly their family relations (Crane & Brannock, 1996, pp. 7-8). These factors include family disputes and conflict, sexual or physical abuse and illicit substance abuse. External factors are those that include policies and practices of the government that create barriers for young people, which ultimately cause homelessness (Crane & Brannock, 1996, pp. 7-8). Crane et al suggest that these can include ‘inadequate levels of income support, discrimination by landlords’ as well as the actions or inactions of ‘welfare authorities, the police, schools and non-profit human services’ (p. 8). Social factors including, ethnic and social background are also recognised as significant risk factors.
The most important and recognised factor from the ones listed above has been the change in family structure. Since the 1980’s, family structure has changed considerably and has contributed significantly to the number homeless youths. The risk level for young people becoming homeless in ‘blended’, divorced, and single parent families is significantly larger than those with ‘intact’ families (Crane & Brannock, 1996, p. 12). The rate of marriage breakup means more young people are growing up with complex sets of relationships involving more than two adults in a parenting role, and since the family is the main form of living arrangement for young people, it can directly affect the youth and ultimately cause homelessness (White & Wyn, 2004, pp. 104-108) The government, in response to this information, began establishing programs to assist in the intervention and prevention of youth homelessness.
The release of Our Homeless Children (‘The Burdekin Report’) sparked considerable media attention and also evoked a great deal of commentary from politicians, welfare agencies, policy experts and other community leaders as well as the general public (Chamberlain & Mackenzie, 1994, p. 1). This was a result of the published data that reported the findings of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into the problem of youth homelessness. From this sudden interest, the government contributed funds to produce assistance and support programs for homelessness, and the passing of the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994 was passed and granted financial assistance for the States to administer the Supported Accommodation Assistance Program.
The first public response to homelessness discussed is the Reconnect Program, an early intervention program, whom targets 12-18 year olds who are homeless or who are at risk of becoming homeless. The Reconnect program was established as a result of the initial Youth Homelessness Pilot Program that was instigated by the Howard Government in 1996. Improving engagement between work, family, education, training and the community is a priority of the Reconnect program and has been proven highly successful (Chamberlain & Mackenzie, 1994, p. iii)
The Supported Accommodation Assistance Program (SAAP), governed by the Supported Assistance Act 1994, commenced in 1985 when all Commonwealth crisis accommodation programs consolidated with the aim to assist people who are homeless or are at risk of becoming homeless by providing immediate accommodation for young people undergoing a crisis (Dwyer, 1989, p. 11). SAAP works on an early intervention method and the goal is to provide transitional accommodation and related support services as well as resolve crisis and re-establish family links where appropriate (FACS, 2003). The SAAP is Australia’s national primary response to homelessness in Australia and is jointly funded by the Commonwealth and State governments.
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2004) the services mostly provided for clients are housing and accommodation (75%) that provides assistance in obtaining independent or short-term accommodation and general support or advocacy (75%) that provides assistance with legal advice, retrieval of belongings, living skills and other advice. The third most common service provided is basic support and services (65%) which also includes meals, recreation, transport and laundry/shower facilities. However, only 7% of people under the age of 25 sought SAAP for employment or training assistance, leaving 93% of SAAP clients unemployed. It is clear that SAAP specialise in acquiring accommodation services for young people at risk of becoming, or are already, homeless.
This paper has reviewed the many factors associated with youth homelessness. The structural factors associated with the causes of youth homeless are undeniably unemployment and lack of affordable housing. While these are the key factors they do not determine why certain young people meet these challenges less well than others, so, other factors such as situation and external factors, play an important role in determining this. Situational and external factors as well as the change in family structure have contributed considerably to the risk factors of youth homelessness. High commissioner of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Brian Burdekin, realised these factors and produced a research report, ‘the Burdekin Report, that created a serious challenge for the governments and politicians whom reacted rapidly. Reconnect and SAAP have responded to young people in crisis, both using prevention and early intervention methods by identifying young people at risk of becoming homeless. Obviously, however, some government programs only cater for certain needs more than others like SAAP, which specialises more in accommodation services than providing assistance with unemployment, a major cause of youth homelessness.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2004, Support Accommodation and Assistance Program. Retrieved: May 16, 2005, from http://www.aihw.gov.au/housing/sacs/saap/saap-stats_supporttypes.cfm
Crane, P & Brannock, J 1996, ‘Homelessness and Early Home leaving: Prevention and Early Intervention,’ in Homelessness Among Young People in Australia: Early Intervention and Prevention, Natural Clearinghouse for Youth Studies, Hobart, pp. 6-21.
Chamberlain, C & MacKenzie, D 1994, Youth Homelessness: Four Policy Proposals, Final Report, viewed April 13 2005, from
Department of Family and Community Services, 2003, SAAP – the Supported Accomodation Assistance Program. Retreived: April 13, 2005, from http://www.facs.gov.au/saap/
Dwyer, P 1989, ‘A Summary and Analysis of the Burdekin Report,’ in National Clearinghouse for Youth Studies, Responses to Burdekin: Government and Non-Government Responses to Our Homeless Youth, National Clearinghouse for Youth Studies, Hobart.
White, R & Wyn, J 2004, Youth and Society: Exploring the Social Dynamics of Youth Experience, Oxford University Press, Victoria.