Government is failing our most vulnerable children

Aug 1, 2023
Adult and child hands holding blue paper house for family home and homeless shelter concept

Australia urgently needs a national plan to effectively address child and youth homelessness.

In 1989, after a two year National Inquiry, the Human Rights Commission advised the Federal Government that Australia had nearly 25,000 homeless children and young people – some of whom were dying from neglect — while many others were living in squalid conditions, reduced to petty crime and prostitution to survive and frequently subjected to violence on the streets. A disturbingly large number of these children had been wards of the state and many had fled families where they had been sexually, physically or emotionally abused. Many were suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness or serious mental health problems left untreated. Some were as young as nice years old.

Some of the rapidly growing number of homeless children we are now looking after at the Burdekin Association in Sydney are as young as seven years old. The problems confronting these children and young people include family poverty and isolation; the scarcity of low-cost housing alternatives; failure to provide any follow-up support for children who have been wards of the state; the inadequacy or complete absence of mental health facilities in rural and regional areas (where our youth suicide rate is double that of our major cities); and failure to implement programs for family support and early intervention strategies which could assist children at risk of becoming homeless.

The Federal Government initially responded to public pressure generated by the Commission’s report with a range of programs specifically designed to help these children and young people. They included increased supported accommodation; various health initiatives; employment and training support programs and programs for early intervention and support for families where children were at risk. But funding for many of these programs dried up after a few years and by the year 2000 the number of homeless children had increased to almost 30,000.

In 2008, The National Youth Commission, after an extensive national inquiry, concluded that the number was close to 40,000. And by census night in 2021, the number had substantially increased to almost 46,000 – of whom almost 28,000 homeless young people were aged 12-24 years– and even more disturbingly 18,000 were under 12 years of age.

In the intervening years there have been various promises by government – but those promises remain largely unfulfilled. The most important areas neglected include: adequately funding early intervention programs – which proved effective in stemming the flow of young people into homelessness; failure to implement strategies recognising the need young people have for appropriate low-cost housing and failure to fund adequate programs for the mentally ill or those with serious mental health problems.

The human cost to our young people — in terms of their right to adequate shelter, and where necessary, to receive special protection from the State – was obviously my main concern as Human Rights Commissioner.

But we also prepared a careful “cost benefit analysis” of the economic advantages of early intervention and prevention strategies – rather than meeting the costs when children become homeless. Those “costs” involved: the juvenile justice system/ adult prisons; health care over a lifetime; long term social security costs; costs to the individual; and costs to the community. In 2008, almost 20 years later, another extensive report “Australia’s Homeless Youth” reached exactly the same conclusion.

There has also been an abject failure to implement appropriate programs for state wards leaving care. Evidence emblematic of the extremely disturbing findings in our 1989 Report, came from the Salvation Army officer, working with homeless children in Kings Cross, who reported that most of the young boys prostituting themselves on the infamous wall were wards of the State.

I was accused of exaggerating the importance of this appalling fact, but evidence given to the Senate Community Affairs Committee 15 years later established that: in 2001, 65 per cent of the Victorian female prisoner population had a “protective care” history; in 2007, 42 per cent of Australia’s homeless youth had a “protective care” history; and that once they enter the juvenile justice system, as many as 90 per cent of “protective care” clients graduated to the adult criminal justice system. In 2015, a national homelessness survey found that 63 per cent of homeless youth had previously been in “state care”!

Australia’s “care and protection” programs are severely underfunded. Children have rights – including the right to adequate shelter and protection from abuse – as the High Court held in a case I was obliged to intervene in in 1994 (the Teoh case). Our governments have a legal as well as moral responsibility to ensure the rights of state wards and all other homeless children are protected.

All the evidence in the last 30 years indicates that federal, state and local governments need to work together with community organisations to develop a specific plan to address child and youth homelessness — to prevent them continuing to experience homelessness into their adult years. Their pathways into homelessness, their vulnerability and the assistance they need, are frequently very different to adults.

The last 10 years were a lost decade in progress to help our most vulnerable children and young people. It is critical that we do not lose the next 10 years.

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