In 1989, a national inquiry into youth homelessness found many Australian children and young people were being denied their fundamental human right of adequate housing.
It was the first time we'd been brave enough as a nation to hold a mirror up to ourselves and ask, "Are we doing everything we can?"
Tragically, more than three decades later, the answer remains the same: "No, we are not."
Youth homelessness is still well and truly with us. In fact, the number of young people without a stable and secure place to call home continues to rise.
Nearly 40 per cent of Australia's homeless population is under 25 years of age. That's more than 40,000 young people. It's a damning statistic which tells us the number of young people who continue to fall through the cracks is indeed a national crisis.
The sobering statistics of youth homelessness revealed by the 1989 inquiry led to the creation of Kids Under Cover, which aims to end the cycle of homelessness and make a meaningful difference in young peoples' lives. This is why I joined the organisation late last year.
But despite the hard work of so many outstanding agencies and people, the number of young people without a home continues to climb. And that's nothing short of devastating.
I wish I could say that after 30 years in the sector focusing on early intervention and prevention, things have changed. But they haven't. We have still got a long way to go. We should be outraged as a community, and get loud about the resources and support required to make more of an impact. Until we do this, the spectre of youth homelessness within our community will remain.
Homelessness is like an iceberg. What you see at the tip are the people who are quite obviously living without a roof over their heads - those on the streets sleeping rough, clearly reaching out for the help many of us don't quite know how to give.
But it goes much deeper than that. The hidden homeless are those sleeping in their cars or in shelters after dark. For many young people, couch surfing at a mate's might be a bed for a night or two, but it's not a home. Homelessness can be quite invisible. So to beat it, we first have to acknowledge it's there.
Every instance of homelessness tells a different story. For young people, overcrowding in the family home and the conflict it creates are two common triggers. But when you look more deeply at the cause, there are often compounding factors that will lead to a young person walking out the door.
Mental health issues, addiction, violence, family breakdown or trauma often provide the backdrop. Experiencing homelessness is not a choice a young person will make for themselves. Usually their circumstances leave them feeling like there is no other choice; they're forced into a life outside of home before they are prepared.
We also currently have a nationwide affordable housing shortage. Right across Australia, there isn't enough housing stock to meet demand. The federal government conducted an inquiry into homelessness, but it's time we did more. We need strong national leadership on a youth homelessness strategy that is consistent for all states and territories. This can only be done through greater goodwill and collaboration between the Commonwealth and its state and territory counterparts, with a significant investment of funds.
One of my greatest frustrations lies with the endless discussions around early intervention and prevention without the genuine funding opportunities to back them up.
I understand it's difficult for governments to measure something that hasn't happened. If you prevent someone from becoming homeless, how do you know that's where they were headed? That's part of the challenge. But it's not so much about the numbers, it's about the loss of potential every young person has. By not providing the basic human right to a stable home and an education, we allow young people to get left behind, and the cycle of homelessness to continue.
For Australia to turn the tide on the youth homelessness crisis, there needs to be increased funding for prevention programs and services.
When I think of the impact we have had at Kids Under Cover, there is one young woman who often comes to mind. Amanda* and her brother, who has significant disabilities, were unable to live with their mum and dad, so they moved in with their grandma and auntie. Three generations in a two-bedroom house.
Amanda was the primary carer for her brother from a very young age. She worked hard at school with the dream of becoming a nurse, but couldn't get the marks she needed to get into nursing.
Kids Under Cover supported Amanda's family with a studio to provide much needed space, and a scholarship to help with schooling expenses. With our support, Amanda was able to take an alternative university pathway, but continued to get turned away by tertiary institutions.
For most of us, that would have been enough to walk away. But this young woman persevered. She continued to knock on the doors of every university, until finally one of them opened. Today she is a nurse working in aged care.
Amanda's story is a typical example of the life-changing impact organisations like Kids Under Cover can have. But, sadly, we can't reach everybody who needs support.
We've experienced an increase in demand of 300 per cent since COVID-19 hit, and we don't have the funding to support these families and young people. It's heartbreaking to have to turn so many applications down simply because we don't have the funding to meet the growing demand.
We need to shift our focus from cure to prevention. We need more funding for early intervention services. And we need a nationally co-ordinated approach.
Only then can we begin to imagine a community where every young person in Australia has a stable and secure place to call home.
* Name changed to protect privacy.
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