Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

From Youth to Adult Homelessness

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

From Youth to Adult Homelessness

Article excerpt


Youth homelessness started to emerge as a public issue in Australia in the 1980s when homeless young people were noticed on city streets. However, it was the publication of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (1989) report Our Homeless Children (The Burdekin Report) which brought youth homelessness to a broad community audience.

The Burdekin Report evoked a great deal of public commentary from politicians, welfare agencies and other community leaders, as well as stirring up significant interest in the general community. One important insight in the Burdekin Report was that young people experience homelessness for varying lengths of times. While the media tended to focus on 'street kids' (Fopp 1989), the Burdekin Report drew attention to the need for different forms of interventions at various critical junctures. The traditional view of homelessness as a sudden crisis started to give way to the recognition that homelessness is best understood as a process of adaptation and exclusion.

Since the mid 1990s, there has been a gradual shift in youth policy towards early intervention. The House of Representatives (1995) Report on Aspects of Youth Homelessness stated that early intervention is 'probably the one area of public policy which could deliver to the community the greatest returns in terms of increased social cohesion through the reduction in the levels of family breakdown and long term welfare dependency' (House of Representatives 1995:360). In 1996, the Australian Federal Government set up a taskforce to oversee 26 early intervention pilot projects. This led to the establishment of the Reconnect program in 1999. There are now 98 Reconnect services across Australia with about 200 early intervention workers. Since 2000 most state and territory governments have also strengthened the welfare infrastructure in schools to facilitate early intervention (Chamberlain & MacKenzie 2008:Ch.8).

Early intervention is predicated on the belief that homelessness is a process and that prolonged exposure to homelessness increases the likelihood of people becoming entrenched in the homeless population. In fact, implicit in the term 'early intervention' is that it:

   ... is possible to observe in the lives of people the early
   manifestations of the phenomenon in the making, and respond in such
   a way that progression to experiencing the phenomenon is halted or
   impeded (Crane & Brannock 1996:5).

The assumption is generally made that it is 'cheaper' and 'more efficient' (Freeman 1999:235) to intervene as early as possible or to focus on prevention. Early intervention holds the promise of 'avoiding or reducing the significant costs associated with homelessness' (Lindblom 1997). There is also a moral argument. Early intervention is a strategy that enables individuals to gain assistance before their situation becomes chronic and denies them access to those resources the community takes for granted (Billis 1981).

There is some evidence to indicate that early intervention can reduce the number of homeless youth (Department of Family and Community Services 2003; Chamberlain & MacKenzie 2008:Ch.8). However, it has also been claimed that early intervention is an expensive policy that does not have clearly identified outcomes. The purpose of this paper is to investigate what happens when early intervention strategies are not in place--or when early intervention fails--and young people progress from youth to adult homelessness.

Theoretical arguments

The theoretical arguments underpinning our analysis focus on the effects of prolonged exposure to homelessness. We call this the social adaptation account and it suggests that the longer people are homeless the more they adapt to homelessness as a 'way of life' (Sosin, Piliavan & Westerfelt 1990; Pears & Noller 1995; Wasson & Hill 1998; May 2000; Auerswald & Eyre 2002; Chamberlain & Johnson 2002; van Doorn 2005). …

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