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Innovating to plug the gaps in a service system not built for children


by Kirsty Frame – Chief Storyteller, Partnerships and Engagement, Launch Housing.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 edition of Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity including how to access full editions.

When a child is too small to see over the reception desk of our service system, do we wait for them to grow, or do we lower the bench?

Tayla and her five children couldn’t carry much with them as they moved from state to state, hotel to hotel, fleeing family violence. It was during visits to op shops that Tayla’s kids began clinging to the soft toys, asking if they could take one ‘home.’

‘It was special to them, having that one constant. Even when everything was crazy, I could think, ‘at least they’ve got those teddies’,’ she recalls.

Tayla was pregnant, parenting alone after family violence, navigating trauma and urgency to find a home. To say the family was stressed is an understatement. Her daughter Ninah, 11, had undiagnosed selective mutism and along with her siblings had attended various schools in the last few years. They had been living in a hotel room when the family arrived at Launch Housing’s entry point in Collingwood.

Almost one quarter of Victorians experiencing homelessness are children, and more than 4,000 of them are under the age of 12. According to the 2021 census, those numbers are up 26 per cent from 2016.

Children with disadvantages and trauma are more likely to have chronic adversities in adulthood, including mental health issues and substance abuse, and to experience family violence, unemployment and welfare dependency.

How does a child escaping the trauma of homelessness engage in education, and what support can help? How can we ensure their eventual transition into adulthood is full of potential and free from homelessness?

Education Rerouting a Child’s Trajectory

From our work with over 600 children since 2016, we know children who experience homelessness tend to fall through the gaps of the education system. Those who lose touch with school at a young age are more at risk of experiencing homelessness as they grow.

Launch Housing’s Education Pathways Program (EPP) is one of the only programs in Victoria that provides targeted educational support to ensure children in crisis stay connected to school, kindergarten, and early childhood education and care.

The Victorian Department of Education has recognised that EPP reaches children who fall through these gaps. At the 2023 Victorian Protecting Children Awards, the EPP was co-winner of the ‘Engaging Kids in School’ Award. It has also been recognised at two State Government Victorian Early Years Awards and the VicHealth Victorian Health Promotion Award for Improving Health Equity.

‘Education is so critical to preventing the cycle of homelessness. Early interventions make a huge difference to education and wellbeing outcomes,’ says Juliana Tardochi, coordinator of the EPP program.

EPP’s multi-disciplinary wrap-around responses means that any need is worked through and addressed. For Tayla’s children, that included enrolments, uniforms, transport – enabling Tayla to focus on her pregnancy and housing prospects.

Then they settled into Launch Housing’s long-term supportive accommodation, Viv’s Place, headquarters of EPP.

Key to its success is how closely EPP works with schools. This means that coordinators can keep track of how participants are adapting and educate school staff about how homelessness impacts children.

During a session with one of EPP’s psychologists Ninah’s selective mutism was discovered. The program also has a speech pathologist, and Ninah immediately began regular sessions.

Today, almost two years on, Ninah is talking. She has friends at school. The family live now in permanent housing, the kids are well-settled into school, and their insomnia has eased.  

Last year, 24 per cent of children in Victoria between five and 14 accessing Victorian homelessness services were either not enrolled in school, or their status was unknown. Those remaining enrolled are at high risk of disengaging as their homelessness develops.

For unaccompanied children accessing specialist homelessness services, the challenge to stay engaged at school is even greater. But the service system does not always support their unique needs.

‘Children and young people are invisible to the system because it caters largely to adults experiencing homelessness,’ says Laura Mahoney, Executive Director of Homelessness Solutions and Impact at Launch Housing

Children are the silent victims of the current system failures.

The need is clear, but the resources aren’t in reach.

Children and young people often present to our services experiencing multiple and significant issues, secondary to their experience or risk of homelessness. Their parents or guardians, if present, may also not have the capacity or resources to provide support due to their own stress and trauma alongside homelessness.

‘Poor mental health, violence, abuse, neglect, education problems are some of the concerns we see in children in our service system. Only in specific, albeit growing, programs are they addressed,’ Mahoney says.

Programs within the service system using multidisciplinary responses continue to plug the gaps of the wider system, without extra resources or a government commitment to sustainably fund them. Often, it’s philanthropy keeping programs alive.

When Children and Their Carers are in Crisis

Without swift intervention, homelessness can set children on a negative trajectory that becomes increasingly difficult to change as they get older. Initial contacts with the service system are vital opportunities to identify and address signs of complex trauma manifesting in both children and adults, yet the status quo design of initial entry points doesn’t have the design or capacity to catch them.

The Children’s Specialist Support Service (CSSS) often dubbed ‘the children’s team’ operates alongside Launch Housing’s Initial Assessment and Planning program at our entry points. Here, children are the clients.

Greeting children at eye level, explaining that staff are here specifically for them, providing activities or toys and being a comforting presence in this space has an impact.

Rani Higgins, coordinator of CSSS, says the service allows the children to feel seen and heard through their own experiences of homelessness.

‘Often in the first meetings, we see children shift from being withdrawn, uncertain and scared, to engaged in activities, laughing, being creative,’ Higgins says.

At Launch Housing’s South Melbourne Crisis Accommodation, a dedicated space for families experiencing homelessness – the CSSS program provides a multi-disciplinary response for children.

Short-term child-centred case management, longer-term therapeutic options, and children’s group work are all facilitated here for children as they adapt to not only a new environment, but with more stability.

How Young Adults Can Thrive for Life

What then happens as children turn into young adults? Getting sent out into the ‘real’ world is an incredible challenge at best of times – bills, jobs, rent, newfound responsibilities.

Young people are increasingly moving out of home and into homelessness due to the lack of affordable housing nationally. Often, this is because home is simply too unsafe, including due to family breakdown, abuse, and long-term traumas. The latest census data shows the highest rates of homelessness per 10,000 people is in the 19-24 age group, at 91.

Rosella lived in foster care from the age of seven, with three different families.

A little after her 18th birthday, her foster family said they were going on holiday without her, and that she needed to move out by the time they were back – in one week.

‘For a young adult to have to navigate such a huge change in such a short time, it’s terrifying,’ Rebecca Lee, Service Manager at Launch Housing’s Education First Youth Foyers says.

‘The Foyers’ provide integrated learning and accommodation for young people aged 16-25, who are or are at risk of experiencing homelessness.

It’s an innovative approach to solving homelessness, recognising that education is key to supporting young people to thrive and prevent long-term disadvantage. Grounded in an early intervention and prevention model, Launch Housing’s Education First Youth Foyers are a distinct model of the national foyers. Foyers are designed to help young people not only to have housing security, but an environment that helps enrich their future.

‘What people need are opportunities to thrive, with coaching and support along the way.  Their needs, their interests, and their goals are super diverse,’ Lee says.

Partnering on-site with TAFE creates a bridge to mainstream education for Foyer students. Each student will graduate with a Certificate 1 in Developing Independence.

From hosting renting rights workshops and helping students to go to viewings and apply for rentals, to bond assistance and moving trucks – there are few ways the Foyers don’t support their students with their coming-of-age transition.

Now, Rosella and three friends who she met at the Foyer are living in a private rental. With 84 per cent of young people leaving our Youth Foyers employed or enrolled in education, there are many stories like Rosella’s – young people finding community and transitioning into adulthood with all the tools they need.

How Can We Make This the Norm?

The Children’s Specialist Support Service sees the children within families in crisis, the Education Pathways Program ensures they’re supported to learn, and the Education First Youth Foyers set young adults up to thrive through adulthood. Together, these services can and do ensure that the cycle of homelessness is broken.

Three services that push the boundary of the current social services system – but should they be so radical?

This article was originally published in Parity magazine. Learn more about Parity including how to access full editions.

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