CONNY LENNEBERG. Youth Foyer model, an education first approach to tackling homelessness

The challenge that youth homelessness represents to our community is not intractable. In Victoria, we are seeing positive outcomes – and bipartisan support – for a new solution in the Education First Youth Foyer model developed by the Brotherhood of St Laurence in partnership with Launch Housing. Not only are these foyers helping young people build capacity to lead more positive independent lives, but they have also been found to make economic sense.

A recent longitudinal study, based on over 100 interviews and 1000 surveys with young people over a five year period, found that 85 % of foyer participants worked or studied in the year after leaving this life-changing program. Those living in their own place (mostly in private rentals) increased from 7% at entry to 43% at exit, and to 51% a year later. Educational attainment was also impressive: the percentage who had completed at least Year 12 or a Certificate III increased from 42% at entry to 67% at exit and 75% after an entire year.

Our approach is working because it speaks powerfully to the theme that “homelessness is more than rooflessness”.

Built – and so co-located – on TAFE campuses in Broadmeadows and Glen Waverley in Melbourne and Shepparton in regional Victoria, the foyers repudiate a crisis narrative that so often persists around traditional approaches to tackling youth homelessness.

Each foyer accommodates 40 young people aged 16 to 24 who have grappled with homelessness in their lives. These extremely challenging circumstances range from couch surfing and other forms of precarious housing to sleeping rough on the streets.

In terms of the ‘roof’, the Education First Youth Foyer offers quality accommodation: studio units with access to communal areas and support from multi-disciplinary staff who work around the clock to provide coaching and guidance.

More deeply, the model offers substantive opportunities for career advice, employment assistance, mentoring, health and well-being, developing life skills and introductions to volunteer and other community activities.

At the heart of this unique response is that the young people who move into the foyers must enter a reciprocal agreement – we call it “the deal” – whereby they commit to participate in education and build their capacity to lead independent lives.

This formula is captured – evocatively – in the very name of the model as the Education First Youth Foyer. Appropriately, we always speak of the young people living at a foyer as students.

Homelessness is often seen as entrenched, resulting from structural inequalities, compounded by a housing affordability crisis and the fraying of the Australian welfare state.

The last major policy push in this area, the Commonwealth’s Road Home (2008) white paper, called for “turning off the tap” by intervening early to prevent chronic homelessness.

However, truly preventative strategies that invest in people’s potential have not taken root widely. Responses continue to be piecemeal or focused on responding to crisis and managing risk.

Nationally 27,780 young people aged 12-24 years were homeless on Census night. For young people who are experiencing, or at significant risk of, homelessness, it not only affects their living conditions, but also their participation in education, employment and community life.

Young people who have not attained Year 12 or equivalent by age 25 are highly unlikely to ever recover their education. Yet, only a third of young people seeking homelessness services are enrolled in education or training.

As the number of young people seeking homelessness services remains stubbornly stable, it is clear that crisis management services alone cannot break this cycle.

To build capability and opportunity and re-instil hope in young people experiencing homelessness, a new approach represented by the Education First Youth Foyer model was needed.

In 2010, the Brotherhood of St Laurence, in partnership with Launch Housing, put forward its proposal to the Victorian government to establish three purpose-built, 40-unit Education First Youth Foyers on TAFE land in metropolitan and regional Victoria. This was an innovative cross-government approach to enabling young people experiencing homelessness to successfully participate in mainstream education, training and employment.

We started as we meant to continue – with a grand ambition to model a new way of working with young people experiencing homelessness. We purposefully set out to change:

  • the practice of understanding and working with young people (focusing on building capability, rather than the language of what they “lack”)
  • how education and housing sectors collaborate on this issue (breaking down service silos)
  • the service landscape (to provide mainstream opportunities to pursue their goals).

The Education First Youth Foyer model expands on an integrated approach to tackling youth homelessness. Developed in the UK, this approach combines affordable transition accommodation with education, training, and employment opportunities to expand young people’s capabilities. Our Australian model leaps further by prioritising education and training as the key pathway to a sustainable livelihood.

In addition to the longitudinal study of the Education First Youth Foyers demonstrating their positive, sustained impact on young people’s lives, importantly, they present economic value. This is demonstrated in an independent cost benefit analysis undertaken by KPMG.

While the benefits of the model are clear, the collaborative approach that contributed to obtaining these positive impacts must be acknowledged.

Three key partnerships were critical to the effectiveness of the Education First Youth Foyer:

1. Cross-departmental commissioning, with community service organisations playing an enabling role: the seeds of the model were sowed by the collaborative work of the (then) Departments of Human Services and Education and Early Childhood Development to invest in this innovative model.

2. Research and practice engaging in shared reflection and refinement of practice: as the model took root, the relationship between research and practitioners developed to nurture and refine the emerging practice approach in order to respond to challenges and opportunities on the ground.

3. Enabling relationships at the delivery level and within the foyers’ culture.

We all have a duty to tackle so-called “wicked problems” and new solutions are needed to secure lasting change. As our work with the Education First Youth Foyer model shows, there is considerable capacity to innovate for the benefit of people experiencing disadvantage so they can fulfil their aspirations – as we all seek to do in our lives.

Conny Lenneberg is Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence.

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