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Accommodation, or lack thereof, is a huge problem for young people.
And to compound difficulties, factors that traditionally lead to homelessness (such as family breakdown, family conflict, unemployment etc.) often also contribute to the development of mental health and substance use issues.
Conversely, mental health issues and substance use can lead to homelessness as the young person may have limited finances, insufficient coping skills and/or lack of motivation.
Homelessness can encompass a range of circumstances that usually fit into these three categories:
Primary homelessness: those who live on the streets or in squats with no access to accommodation.
Secondary homelessness: those whose accommodation is not stable or long term (staying with friends, in hostels, shelters, and moving frequently).
Tertiary homelessness: those living in boarding houses for 13 weeks or longer.
In the context of youth work, homelessness presents additional challenges for both client and worker. Securing accommodation is usually the priority for both and so making (and keeping) worker-client appointments becomes secondary. In addition, accommodation secured isn’t always geographically convenient for the client in terms of its proximity to their worker. In these instances, outreach becomes especially important. However, a client’s transience means they’re often difficult to locate, which, as another barrier to the provision of your service.
Young people with mental illness and/or substance use issues often find it difficult to access housing, as they mightn’t meet criteria, lack independent living or self-care skills. Many youth housing programs are based on shared housing, which also mightn’t be appropriate for clients due to things such as hygiene, conflict and criminal activity.
Homeless clients with children face a host of additional barriers.
A client’s ability to provide a safe, protective environment for their children is severely compromised and homeless programs that cater for clients with children can be difficult to access. These programs usually offer services that range from general support around finding housing to providing actual properties. Accommodation can vary from shared housing with staff on-site to much more independent living. Almost all programs require the young person to actively participate, which may entail attending regular meetings or sessions, personal development/education, accepting certain involvements or maintain employment or training.
Due to high demand and the nature of these services, the intake and assessment period is often intensive and waiting lists can be lengthy. Due to different funding provisions and accommodation models, some programs aren’t able to accommodate couples. This is particularly evident in crisis accommodation, where availability changes daily and some facilities are gender-specific.
The demand for youth housing far outweighs its availability. Waiting lists are often long, criteria is usually strict and places are often out of the client’s geographically convenient area. Geographically distanced from support networks, young people are at risk of isolation and loneliness.
Clients whose homelessness can be categorised as secondary or tertiary still face dangers even though they’re not sleeping on the street; having little or no control over their environment (for example, while staying with others) presents risks to the children’s safety. In addition, transience makes it extremely difficult to offer children routine, which can negatively impact their mood, behaviour, body clock and general emotional stability and development.
Predictably, young clients usually encounter difficulties with the private rental process. Real estate agents are commonly reluctant to rent to young people who are unable to supply references and whose primary income is Centrelink-dependent.
Where accommodation options are particularly limited, it’s worth exploring the young person’s extended support network, including potential supports (that is, family members or family friends the young person mightn’t have originally considered) who might be able to assist.
- Establish relationships with local housing agencies, and keep in regular contact with them to discuss options
- Ensure that all relevant information is provided to the housing agency at time of referral, so they are best placed to assist
Housing maintenance and tenants’ responsibilities
Sustaining housing can be just as difficult as securing it. Commonly, three main issues lead to eviction:
- Failing to pay rent
- Failing to maintain the property
- Problem visitors
Many clients will have had no appropriate modelling regarding property/housing maintenance. Lifestyle often dictates that paying rent and bills is not a priority and so once a young person falls behind on these things, they usually find it near impossible to catch up.
Often, clients who secure accommodation quickly find themselves supporting several friends, which can lead to noise complaints, property damage and eventual eviction.
Monitoring clients’ accommodation and educating them on the responsibilities inherent to renting/tenanting is an important facet of casework. Financial guidance is also key as very few young people in your client group will be proficient in managing their funds. Practical assistance, such as setting up direct debit facilities (Centrepay, for example) and drawing up a weekly budget together can be invaluable as clients learn to prioritise and hopefully safeguard themselves against falling behind on rent and bills.
Accommodation in a nutshell
- Educate clients around basic living skills and tenants’ obligations and responsibilities so that when accommodation is secured, they are informed and less likely to make errors that risk invoking eviction (property upkeep, restricting visitors, restricting noise and mess that often comes with company, paying rent on time).
- Discuss budgets and priorities and, where necessary, help the client to set up direct debits such as Centrepay to help keep them on track financially.
- Map out the client’s extended support network so as to have as many options as possible to call on for assistance with accommodation when needed.
- If the client is on a waiting list for an accommodation program that requires them to be active while waiting (employed, in training, participating in some kind of ongoing activity), be sure to support the client in whatever ways help them to maintain commitment.