Stairway to an uncertain future. Photo: Justin McManus
The state care system is the only home known by thousands of Victoria's most vulnerable children. But the supports designed to smooth the path to independence when they are forced out at 18 appear to be failing, with new figures revealing more young people are ending up on the street.
At least 127 teenagers who sought help from homeless shelters in 2012-13 listed transition from foster care or group homes, and lacking the money and skills to live independently, as their main reasons.
Between 800 and 900 young people leave state care each year.
The Napthine government says it will wait for the findings of a five-year study of teens moving from out-of-home care to independent living, before pledging further funding to help in the transition.
The $1 million research project, Beyond 18, is the first of its kind in Victoria, due to be completed by mid-2017.
But advocates are urging a swifter solution to stem the growing numbers of state care leavers becoming homeless because they are too young and ill equipped.
Despite $16 million of new programs to help state care leavers with housing, job-seeking and training, introduced in 2011, the figures released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show the problem is not improving.
The number of homeless state care leavers has climbed 7 per cent since that year.
Social services say the figures add weight to the case for a new funding assistance program to help state care leavers until the age of 25, because existing government supports are ''falling short''.
''Most young people are living at home for longer periods, and when they do move out they can call on family support,'' Council to Homeless Persons chief executive Jenny Smith said.
''Young people leaving care don't have that luxury - their accommodation ends at the age of 18 and they don't have family to supplement the rent.''
The council's Victorian pre-budget submission calls for a $4160 yearly payment for each young person who leaves state care to help cover the cost of housing, or to be used as a rent guarantee.
''Even for a young person sharing a house in the outer suburbs, the gap between the median rent and what's affordable is about $40 per week,'' Ms Smith said.
''If that young person had to live on their own, the rent gap is closer to $130 a week.''
A shared housing block in Footscray, operated by non-profit Berry Street, is among limited supports available for state care-leavers who have ended up sleeping rough.
A 19-year-old tenant, who did not want to be identified, left home four years ago because of violence before spending a long stint couch-surfing. He wound up living in out-of-home care after approaching Melbourne City Mission. He left shortly before turning 18, and had Youth Allowance of $300 a fortnight to get by.
''I went to a rental property that was really, really expensive … I couldn't afford it, left, and then went to Queensland a few times here and there,'' he said. ''The worst place I slept was in an abandoned mill in Newport with squatters.''
Associate Professor Philip Mendes, of Monash University's social work department, said the Beyond 18 study was important, but there was already enough evidence available to trigger an increase in support for care leavers.
He agreed there should be a specialised fund to help state care leavers afford rent, and said 18 was an artificial age to send teenagers out on their own. Transitioning should be ''based on developmental maturity, not chronological maturity,'' and extend beyond 21, he said.
''Most other young people stay home until they are 21 or 25, and have none of the disadvantages that the care-leaving group have had … People come into state care because of abuse and neglect, and will carry some degree of trauma as a result of that.''
A Department of Human Services spokeswoman said the state government welcomed the Council to Homeless Persons' submission, but broader issues of access to rental homes for young people needed to be considered in addition to handouts.
More than $82 million was also being invested in the Victorian Homelessness Action Plan, she said, including three 40-bed Youth Foyers that provide a stable place to live, mental health support and courses that lead to employment.
The spokeswoman said it was anticipated the Beyond 18 study would provide evidence to guide government plans for more measures to help care-leavers.