Over a third of Australians experiencing homelessness today are young people. And with the global pandemic, these numbers are expected to worsen. For Youth Homelessness Matters Day, Owen shares his own experience of being homeless at 13 and what we can all do to support young people at risk or experiencing homelessness during this time.
This story contains challenging themes. If the subject of mental illness raises any concerns for you, please contact these relevant support services.
As Australian society shakes with the outbreak of COVID-19, our fracturing economy threatens to make the already vulnerable, more vulnerable and worsen the youth homelessness epidemic. So what can we do to support young people in the crisis? And what support services are out there to keep a roof over their heads when they need it most?
Understanding youth homelessness
One in six young people in Australia have experienced homelessness. That statement should blow all our minds. These are often children. Trapped, alone, abandoned, mentally unhealthy and disappearing, the forgotten lost children of the night.
I don’t speak from rumour, I speak from experience. At only 13, I was labelled a ‘street kid’—aggressive, homeless, addicted, enraged and broken. Crime was a way of surviving the streets. And even with shady characters, drugs and bad influences, it still somehow felt like home.
Some 42,000 people aged 15-24 are homeless in Australia today, though due to the hidden nature of homelessness, that number is probably much higher. Young people make up over a third of the Australian homeless population.
Owen Davis, 2018 | Source: Shark Island Institute
The wild thing to consider is that these stats exist under ‘normal’ economic conditions; the ‘every day’ for one of the world’s wealthiest countries. So consider then the effect a mass economic downturn (like the one we’re currently in) could have on this number.
It was back in January that the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia leaving shelves empty and the country in panic. Three months later, and Australia is a quiet place. Events cancelled, pubs, clubs, universities and local businesses shut, potentially forever.
So with the COVID-19 pandemic well and truly upon us and the economic flow-on effects multiplying quickly, the devastating effects on the youth homelessness epidemic are unknown but likely unprecedented.
COVID-19 and homelessness, not destined to be the best of mates
The economy has taken a pretty hard hit. And even with substantial government aid, over one million people have already lost their jobs and are seeking assistance, many of them young people in the flexible or gig economy.
Rental stress is on the rise. Schools, often the frontline of support for homeless young people, have closed their doors, disconnecting at-risk youth whose home lives are now squarely back in focus.
The combination of mass quarantining has already resulted in a rise in domestic violence and alcohol abuse, making home life even less safe than before. No surprises, the number of young people at risk of becoming homeless has skyrocketed. And as the economy continues to fall, these numbers will only rise.
Families will struggle to make ends meet, more jobs will be lost and more issues will arise in homes. From my experience the trajectory is devastatingly clear—already overstretched services will baulk under increased caseloads and young people will fall through the cracks. Overcrowding in shelters and residential services will further increase the chance of COVID-19 exposure.
On Youth Homelessness Day, I’m looking forward
There are small things we can do now, but we also need to keep our eye on long-term solutions. One of the most effective being education.
After touring through schools as part of Oasis Project, I have seen firsthand the positive effects that homelessness awareness can have on young people. For those at risk of homelessness, it opens their eyes and inspires them to dream for a better future. For others, it builds knowledge on the issue and provides a foundation for support in the future. Most of the students I’ve met left our discussions passionate, aware and hungry to tackle homelessness head-on.
Owen (middle) at the Sydney Film Festival premiere of Life After the Oasis, 2019 | Source: Sydney Film Festival
My story, like so many others, began at home, with issues that if picked up at the time, could have been resolved, preventing me from being homeless at all. No one chooses to be homeless.
No one puts their hand up and says, “Hey! I want to be homeless”, situations and circumstances lead to this. Early warning signs are often overlooked. It’s therefore essential that we’re educated and gain the knowledge required to know what to do if we notice any of these signs, or are in a circumstance where we find ourselves or someone we know homeless.
Today I run a charity called The Street 2 Stage Project, finding homeless and marginalised young people and running music workshops. We find the homeless and turn them into superstars. I also release music and mentor many others like myself who are looking for a way out. The next few months will be a hard slog for many of us. But please know you’re not alone.
There are services and support to help
Here are a few of them:
• If you’re at-risk of homelessness, no matter where you are in Australia, Ask Izzy should be your first point-of-call. It can help you find emergency housing, food and services.
• FYA has some great resources collated for young people during COVID-19, but also check out the Australian Government’s official health advice or call the National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080 if you’re experiencing symptoms or have been exposed.
• If you or someone you know is experiencing a hard time and needs to speak to someone, please contact these relevant support services.
Feel like you can lend a hand? Here’s what you can do:
The Oasis Project is an initiative of YLab and Shark Island Institute to support the early intervention and prevention of youth homelessness through education. Want your school to get involved? Learn more here. Are you an educator? Access the action kit and start teaching now.