The support schools offer young people goes far beyond education. But are teachers prepared for helping with youth homelessness? Casey spoke to Brett*, a high school teacher in Melbourne, about his experience with homelessness in the classroom and reveals four key things he wants everyone to know.
*Brett is a pseudonym that has been used to protect the identity of the teacher.
Schools have been cited as a critical resource in the fight against youth homelessness but often teachers don’t have the tools, support or resources to identify and help at-risk students. Here’s what Brett* says it’s like on the ground.
Identifying youth homelessness is not in the curriculum
Brett*, says homelessness is a reality for many young people he teaches. Many of the families he works with are “financially stressed” and most of his students have intellectual disabilities, which can have an impact on relationships and general family life.
Despite working with some of Victoria’s most vulnerable young people, “Homelessness is not explicitly explored in our curriculum,” Brett said. Instead, the school focuses on the development of practical life skills and how to build and maintain respectful relationships.
“Students don’t talk openly about their home lives,” he added. Brett and the other teachers often use lunchtime to check in with students one-on-one if they suspect something is bothering them. But it can at times be hard to pick up on all the signs and symptoms of youth homelessness, and the curriculum has not been built with detecting these in mind.
Some key signs of homelessness
One tell-tale sign of homelessness (or at least one that pinpoints to students most at-risk), is students needing to stay with friends. It’s not uncommon for students at Brett’s school to have family fall-outs resulting in them having to temporarily move in with friends. When this occurs, “frequent care-team meetings with the student, their parents, carers and social workers have been held” to try and resolve whatever has occurred at home. Brett said the outcome is usually positive.
Students who present with extreme or overly defiant behaviour at school are in many cases also struggling at home. Getting to know students over the long-term helps decipher small changes in behaviour or motivation that could be symptoms of an underlying problem at home.
When students graduate, however, “the support school can offer is minimal”. It’s this precious safety net that puts schools in a unique position to support early detection and prevention of homelessness for young people.
More education is needed for the systems that support young people
Brett’s greatest concerns are for those students who receive little or no support once they are “out of the system”. He said he’s worked with two students who’ve experienced homelessness after graduating due to volatile relationships with family members. These students were either “kicked out” or felt they had no other option than to leave home.
While at school, the teachers worked closely with both students, but once they turned 17 they were no longer protected by Department of Health and Human Services child protection laws, making it significantly “more difficult for interventions in the home”.
It’s stories like these that demonstrate the need for effective programs that teach young people how to identify challenging family issues and relationships and how to seek support for their peers and themselves. This is the very essence of YLab’s Oasis Project, where young people with an experience of homelessness provide in-school (currently online) training and support to teachers and students alike.
Education and support are key to supporting young people
Currently, with little resources, and no specific training on how to combat youth homelessness, Brett believes the best thing he can do is this:
“Teach students how to foster and maintain respectful relationships to assist in maintaining a more harmonious work and home life.”
He also believes it’s important for students to be familiar with the law and to know their rights. Brett recognises there’ll be times when students can’t control the situation they’re in, but they can always seek help. He believes part of his role is empowering students to reach out during times of need and to know there are people and services willing to offer assistance.
Some support services include Ask Izzy, Homelessness Australia, Council to Homeless Persons and Youth Law Australia.