ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 4, Autumn 2012

The new face of homelessness

A snapshot report has revealed that an alarming number of homeless children are being let down by patchy services. Dimity May spoke to Professor Morag McArthur about this increasingly overlooked population.

Last year in Australia 84,000 children tried to get help from a homeless service – equivalent to one in 60 children - but more than half of them were turned away, a snapshot report on child homelessness has revealed.

Seen and heard: putting children on the homelessness agenda was released by children’s groups including the Institute for Child Protection Studies (ICPS) at ACU.

Drawing on research, including information from frontline staff across 107 specialist homelessness services, the report found that these children were being let down by a lack of clear national targets and patchy support services.

Professor Morag McArthur, Director of ICPS, said that two years after the release of the Federal Government’s White Paper on tackling homelessness, The Road Home, not enough action had been taken.

“There is little consistency in the services and support provided to children who become homeless when their families do – what they end up getting is pure chance,” she said.

“The White Paper made a range of commitments specifically to homeless children, yet little has been done. There have been no clear national targets set, not enough of an increase in resources, and no consistent national framework. It is very hard to keep a focus on children as most services are very adult focused”.

The report found that family groups are the most likely to be turned from government-funded accommodation services, including 82 per cent of couples with children and 67 per cent of individuals with children. Of the children who accompanied their parent or guardian to a homelessness service last year, almost 72 per cent were under the age of 10.

The causes of family homelessness are varied. They include structural causes such as the housing affordability crisis and the decline of low skilled jobs, and personal or familial causes such as relationship breakdown, domestic violence and mental health issues. Often families presented to specialist homelessness services with multiple and complex issues.

The report calls for prevention, early intervention and better support through a range of measures including an increased supply of affordable housing, simpler services that are easier to identify and prioritised housing support for families, especially those with young children.

The report also suggested a national framework be implemented to guarantee consistency and quality of care for homeless children and an expansion of existing effective programs such as the Household Organisational Management Expenses (HOME) program, which assists families with personal or financial challenges.

Professor McArthur said the impact of homelessness on children is especially disturbing, and emphasised the importance of a strong and targeted response from the system.

“Homelessness has a flow-on effect in children’s lives. It has a profoundly negative impact on their health and wellbeing, their engagement with school, their capacity to learn and their connection to friends, family and the community,” she said.

“The challenge for homelessness services is to specifically assess and act on children’s needs. The state and federal governments have done some great work around homelessness, but too often the focus has been on single people rather than families and children.”

Seen and heard: putting children on the homelessness agenda is a joint initiative between ICPS, Mission Australia, Hanover Welfare Services, The Australian Centre for Child Protection and The Social Policy Research Centre. You can download a copy of the report on the Mission Australia website

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