In total, 24 055 young people participated in the Youth Survey 2017, Mission Australia’s 16th annual survey of young Australians aged 15-19 years. Of these, 21 812 responded to the survey’s questions on experiences of homelessness, with nearly 1 in 6 young people (15.6%) reporting having experienced a type of homelessness, either time with no fixed address, living in a refuge or transitional accommodation or time spent couch surfing. Among those who reported couch surfing, these experiences were often not isolated, with only one in five (19.8%) indicating this had happened on just one occasion and with some young people having typically stayed away for periods longer than 6 months. Importantly, almost one in five of those who had couch surfed (19.5) reported that they had first done so when they were less than 12 years old.

Other key findings of the survey included:

Young people who had experienced homelessness were notably more likely than young people who had never experienced homelessness to:

  • Have moved in the past three years, with more than one fifth (21.7%) of young people who had experienced homelessness having moved 3 or more times in the past three years, compared with only one in twenty young people (5.1%) who had never experienced homelessness.
  • Feel there would be barriers to the achievement of their study/work goals after leaving school (70.3% compared with 47.3%).
  • Report not being in paid employment but looking for work (39.9% compared with 33.0%).
  • Highly value getting a job (49.0% compared with 37.4%).
  • Be highly concerned about family conflict (44.4% extremely or very concerned compared with 14.7%) and depression (43.8% extremely or very concerned compared with 18.9%).
  • Report their family’s ability to get along was only fair (22.2% compared with 9.6%) or poor (23.7% compared with 3.9%).
  • Indicate low levels of happiness with their life as a whole (24.3% compared with 6.2% giving a rating between 0-30 out of 100).
  • Meet the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness (47.9% compared with 18.8%).2
  • Feel they had no control over their life (10.3% compared with 1.8%).
  • Report the statement ‘I have high self-esteem’ was not very true of me (19.6% compared with 6.8%).
  • Feel negative/very negative about the future (19.4% compared with 7.9%).

Despite the stark differences identified above, there were also a number of similarities between the two cohorts including:

  • Over 9 in 10 of those who had or hadn’t experienced homelessness were currently undertaking some type of study (94.6% compared with 97.6% respectively). Similarly, the vast majority of both cohorts intended to complete Year 12 (93.8% compared with 97.7% respectively).
  • The most frequently cited plan after leaving school was to go to university, although this was at lower levels amongst those who had experienced homelessness (50.4% compared with 69.6%).
  • Both groups rated friendships and family relationships as being among their top three most valued items.
  • The top two concerns for both cohorts were coping with stress and school or study problems.
  • The top three sources of help with important issues in their lives were consistently friend/s, parent/s, and a relative/family friend.
  • Both identified mental health, alcohol and drugs and equity and discrimination as the top three issues facing Australia.
  • The top three activities for both cohorts were sports (as a participant), sports (as a spectator) and volunteer work, with young people indicating strong levels of participation across a range of activities regardless of whether or not they had experienced homelessness.

This report further draws comparisons between the responses of young people who have experienced youth homelessness and those who have experienced homelessness with their family. While results across both groups generally followed a similar pattern to the findings outlined above for all young people experiencing homelessness, those who had experienced youth homelessness were the most likely to express low levels of confidence in their ability to achieve their study/work goals after school, to indicate high levels of concern about family conflict, depression and suicide, to meet the criteria for having a probable serious mental illness and to express negative feelings about the future.

Young people experiencing either youth or family homelessness gave less positive ratings of their family’s ability to get along than those who had never experienced homelessness, however, those experiencing youth homelessness were the most likely to indicate only fair or poor family relationships, to express high levels of concern about family conflict and to cite family responsibilities and lack of family support as barriers to them achieving their study/work goals. They were also the least likely to say they had lived with their parent/s over the past three months and to turn to parent/s for help with important issues in their lives.

The Youth Survey 2017 findings have important implications for how we understand and act to address the issues of youth and family homelessness. They point to the existence of a critical group of young people who are either couch surfing and/or have experienced other types of homelessness during their lifetime. This group is far more likely to perceive barriers to the achievement of their study/work goals, to indicate poor family relationships and family conflict, to be concerned about depression, to be showing indicators of probable serious mental illness and feeling negatively towards the future. Critically, some of these young people are lacking the important support families can offer as they navigate adolescence, a period of significant change and challenge and move towards independence.

The findings highlight the importance of an early identification mechanism for young people at risk of homelessness and timely interventions providing the support necessary to prevent these young people continuing down a pathway to entrenched homelessness. Given this research reveals that young people who have an experience of homelessness have poorer outcomes on a number of measures, such as family functioning and mental health (including self-esteem and sense of control) compared to their non-homeless counterparts, a universal assessment tool, which is sensitive to differences in such items could allow for an individual and immediate response and subsequently reduce youth homelessness.

To read more about youth homelessness and Mission Australia?s recommendations click here.