Thank you and good morning everyone.
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to Elders past and present.
I also want to thank Yfoundations for the invitation to speak to you all this morning. In particular I would like to thank Michael Coffey, CEO of Yfoundations, for the opportunity to take part in the launch of Youth Homelessness Matters Day – a day to both acknowledge the extent to which homelessness affects young people and to commit to doing something about it, but also to celebrate the strength of young people in the face of adversity. I am honoured to add my voice to the work currently being undertaken by Yfoundations and its many supporters and partners.
Everyone here knows homelessness is a serious issue in this country for young people but out in the general community, understanding is much more limited. So this day provides an important opportunity to open the eyes of the public to the reality of youth homelessness.
The children in the title of my role of National Children’s Commissioner refers to children and young people up to the age of eighteen, in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is the foundation document that guides me in my work. Under this international law, which Australia signed up to in 1990, all children and young people have inalienable rights - such as the right to feel and be safe, the right to shelter and the right to health and education. And by ratifying the Convention, Australia is obliged to make good on its promises to children and young people, by creating communities and conditions that support the protection of their rights.
One of the most important rights set out in the Convention is the right to an adequate standard of living to ensure children and young people’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. For me it is important to conceptualise youth homelessness through the lens of our international and domestic obligations. Youth homelessness is not just a housing issue, it is a human rights issue. Children and young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness need to be recognised as rights holders and supported in ways that help them to enjoy their full suite of rights.
The state of homelessness denotes that a young person’s rights to shelter, security, and an adequate standard of living have already been compromised in fundamental ways. And when children and young people find themselves homeless, this impacts on their ability to enjoy other fundamental human rights as well.
Like much to do with child and youth well-being, definitive data about youth homelessness is either hard to catch hold of or narrow in scope. Because homeless kids often become experts in masking their predicaments, any numbers we do have are likely to be an underestimate. However, according to the last Census, children and young people under the age of 25 make up a staggering 42% of all homeless people. The Census also recorded a total of 28,756 children and young people 18 years and under who were homeless. Of those, 17,842 were under 12 years of age. We cannot begin to really tackle homelessness unless we get behind these numbers and understand its causes - the physical and emotional forces that lead young people to leave home, or to them being forced to leave.
Homelessness rarely exists in a vacuum. It's typically just one of the many challenges confronting an individual - particularly when that individual is still growing up. Many factors can lead to young people finding themselves homeless - from individual issues associated with family conflict and breakdown, substance abuse, gender and sexuality to broader societal problems like youth unemployment and unaffordable housing. And one factor that is less talked about is that very often when young people run away from home—they are running away from abuse and violence.
In 2015, I undertook a nation-wide examination of the issue of family and domestic violence as it relates to children. Through this work, which I reported on in my annual report to federal Parliament, I sought to identify and highlight the unique experiences of children affected by family and domestic violence. What I found was that homelessness is a common experience of children affected by family violence. When faced with a violent and dangerous situation in the home, many young people and mothers with children choose to leave. Often they have no other safe alternative, even though leaving home is not guarantee of safety.
Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that of the 254,001 clients who were assisted by specialist homelessness services in 2013–14, more than a quarter (just under 70,000) were under 18. Of these clients, 24 % reported family and domestic violence as the main reason for seeking assistance. While some studies suggest that over 20% of children have witnessed violence against their mother or step-mother, through my examination, I was also able to gather information about children who are direct victims of family violence. This showed that 839,400 women and 596,400 men first experienced physical violence by a family member before the age of 15, and that 515,200 women and 97,800 men first experienced sexual abuse by a family member before the age of 15. These figures show just how widespread and commonplace violence is in the lives of Australian children. The negative impacts of this exposure cannot be underestimated.
It is encouraging that the growing recognition of the importance of the issue of family and domestic violence in Australian lives has been elevated to a remarkable national conversation and that concrete action to address family violence is in train. However, it is critical that our understanding of the unique impacts and experiences of children and young people is a part of this conversation, including the link between family and domestic violence and youth homelessness. Being homeless as a child, adolescent or young adult entails more than just lacking a reliable place to go to after school. It's compounded by the absence of stability, both physical and mental, at a time when a person is most vulnerable.
It is easy to fall behind in your classes when you don’t have a stable home environment and are worried about where you are going to be sleeping that night. The cost of textbooks, transport, uniforms and supplies can put even more pressure on children and families already struggling financially. It is easy to understand how school can cease to be a priority in these situations. Nor is it easy to focus on homework if your nights are spent curled up on a friend's or stranger’s couch counting down the days until you wear out your welcome. Or cramming for a test in an overcrowded shelter surrounded by people you don’t know. At the same time, it is crucially important that children and young people are helped to take advantage of education and training opportunities, regardless of their housing situation. Leaving school early can make gaining meaningful employment more difficult, which in turn increases the likelihood of young people finding themselves homeless in the future.
Being homeless can be a traumatic and scary experience that can severely impact on the physical and mental health of children and young people, at a critical period when the brain and the body are still developing. Being homeless also makes young people much more vulnerable to additional dangers: the longer a kid is homeless, the greater the likelihood that they will be physically assaulted, raped, or trafficked. Together the pre-cursers to homelessness and the experience of homelessness itself prevent children and young people from enjoying their rights to safety and security to which they are entitled.
We clearly have a long way to go to ensure that children and young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness enjoy their full rights as Australian citizens. That’s why the work of organisations like Yfoundations is vital in keeping the issue of youth homelessness on the national agenda. It’s also why National Youth Homelessness Matters Day is such an important event. I believe that many Australians would be shocked if they knew the huge numbers of children and young people affected by homelessness in this country and understood the lived reality for those young people. Educating the public about this issue is the first step in creating the momentum for change. It is also important that the voices of young people who have experienced homelessness are heard and listened to. Today we have young people with us who have this experience and I urge all of us who are in a position to influence policy and practice to listen to their stories and engage with them on how we can best both prevent and respond to youth homelessness. Always remember, these young people are the experts in their own lives. They know best what works for them and what doesn’t.
To conclude, we know that youth homelessness is more than just not having roof over your head – it impacts on the fundamental rights and freedoms that all children and young people should enjoy. It is, fundamentally, a human rights issue.