Some Reflections on the Policy History of Youth Homelessness in Australia

By MacKenzie, David | Cityscape, September 1, 2018 | Go to article overview

Some Reflections on the Policy History of Youth Homelessness in Australia


MacKenzie, David, Cityscape


The Social Construction of Youth Homelessness

Despite many similarities in the structural changes since the 1960s among the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom that have led to an increase in homelessness as well as a more diverse population including more young people and families (Rossi, 2013), Australia has been notable for the early prominence given to "youth homelessness" as an identifiable social problem focus.

All social problems including "homelessness" are socially constructed, and the definitional debates and decision-making take place in the realm of politics and policy-making processes. Social researchers play a part in these debates and in the policy processes, but as one amongst many stakeholders, including the major service agencies, advocacy and lobby groups, government bureaucracies, political parties, and politicians (Best, 2017).

Describing policy-making as a process tends to be descriptive rather than a theory of policy change and framing policy-making as social construction does not explain how the dynamics of policy-making processes for particularly complex social problems are played out. A promising and increasingly influential theoretical model of policy formation is the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) developed by Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith (1988, 1999). The salient value of their analytical model is that it captures the elements involved in complex, contested areas of policy change and provides for conflict and political claims-making by various actors/claims-makers/stakeholders organised loosely or tightly in coalitions advancing different strategies, claims, and proposals. The ACF model analysis of policy-related events and activities recognises that the achievement of major reform generally involves playing a long game (at least a decade on average). The Advocacy Coalition Framework has the dual value of being a sophisticated explanatory model but also a theory of practice.

From a program delivery perspective, service delivery definitions are required to identify who is eligible to receive assistance for homeless people; from a research perspective, operational definitions are required to determine who will be counted as homeless when estimating the size of the homeless population; and from a policy and planning perspective, definitions are framed to "target groups" authorised as a focus for planning and program delivery. Apart from debates about the concept of homelessness, for all practical purposes, different definitions are required for a range of purposes. In social problems discourses, the size of the population has often been controversial and contested, with advocates tending to opt for larger estimates while governments tend to favour more conservative figures. As Joel Best (2012) reminds us, social statistics are social constructions as well dependent on the definition used and how counting is undertaken. During the 1980s and 1990s in the United States, estimates of the homeless population were highly contested (Roleff, 1996) and even after the HUD street and shelter counts, the issue of whether homeless young people were adequately counted has remained controversial.

In Australia, from the time youth homelessness was first brought to public attention in the seventies, a number of notable milestones has occurred. But, as Archbishop Peter Hollingsworth (1993), a major leader in the welfare sector during the 1970s, reflected: "... the great difference between the 1960s and the 1990s is that (youth) homelessness was viewed as an individual problem affecting a few. It was never defined as a societal problem of serious proportions." During the 1980s, grassroots community advocacy around the problems of homeless young people was vigorous, accompanied by a steady output of media coverage of "street kids." Perhaps in response, the first Australian Government inquiry was the Senate Standing Committee on Social Welfare's Report on Youth Homelessness in 1982. …

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