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Reimagining Social Housing for Young People


by Shorna Moore, Head of Public Policy and Government Relations, Strategy and Engagement, Melbourne City Mission

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

Social housing for young people

Never has the need for a safe, secure and affordable home been so pressing than during the COVID‑19 crisis. Our collective health has been reliant on finding appropriate housing for everyone, and the lack of social housing has been acutely felt. Having a home is critical for people’s mental and physical health, their education and employment opportunities, and their ability to fully participate in society.

Despite the significant and welcomed injection of stock under Victoria’s Big Housing Build, the overall scale of the challenge facing young people experiencing homelessness in Victoria will be broadly  unchanged. That is, unless a supported housing system is created for young people that ensures access to a safe and secure home with appropriate supports in place — providing them with a pathway to independence.

The Challenge

The social housing system is designed for adults and adult problems. Young people have different experiences of homelessness and support needs, and they regularly fail to benefit from adult‑focused services. The current system in Victoria is funded with a focus on responding to the initial crisis by providing short‑term support and accommodation,  leaving a young person with no real exit pathways out of homelessness.

Homelessness during adolescence means disconnection from the supportive and nurturing relationships with parents or caregivers that enable young people to build  the confidence and capability to transition to adulthood. The absence of these supports in early adulthood creates a high- pressure environment in which young people are forced into survival mode, and do not have the luxury of years to develop coping strategies, emotional regulation and problem-solving skills.

The majority of housing options and support services, however, are based on the assumption of independence and a momentary crisis. As a result, young people’s access to social housing remains highly problematic.

Nationally, young people experiencing homelessness are only 2.9 per cent of main tenants in social housing, despite that they make up about half (54 per cent) of all single people who seek help from homelessness services. The current business  model of mainstream social housing means that providers are often reluctant to accept young people because of their low and insecure incomes (including Centrelink and entry level wages) and because they are regarded as risky tenants.

It is estimated that there are 7,000 young people in Victoria experiencing or at risk of homelessness seeking medium-term transitional housing whose needs are not being met. There is a clear gap in medium‑term supported housing for young people with medium to high support needs. Without effective intervention, this group will go on to require a high level of support across a range of public services.

Through the delivery of Victoria’s Big Housing Build and 10-Year Social and  Affordable Housing Strategy, the Government has a real opportunity to create a youth specific and supported housing  system that is transitional, to ensure young people can access social housing with the levels of support that they need to transition from crisis to independence. This includes reform to Victoria’s outdated transitional housing system — a  system that is still operating as it was in the 1990s.

The Solution

In 2021, we have an opportunity to conceptualise a youth specific and supported housing system that moves away from an adult system with ad hoc youth elements and provides a pathway out of crisis to independence.

Removing Financial Barriers

Housing in Victoria is particularly difficult for young people to access due to their low incomes. Young people’s incomes —  whether it be from Centrelink payments, or from entry level wages — are considerably lower than that of an adult.

Social  housing is not geared toward providing housing to young people as rent is calculated based on tenant or household income and is generally set at 25 per cent of income. Social housing providers have reported that they struggle to house young people for financial reasons, as young people’s lower incomes make them less financially viable for providers.

For a young person who is in receipt of the maximum rate of Youth Allowance and is lucky enough to access social housing, they are left  with less than $25 per day in their pocket after rent.

The Victorian Government should develop a strategy to remove young people’s financial barriers to accessing social housing. This could be done by adjusting the social housing subsidy model for  young people to a financially viable model that significantly reduces the proportion of income-based rent a young person has to pay.

Consideration of fully funded operating models or a youth homelessness supplement will go a long way to supporting a young person in crisis to transition to independence and exit the social housing system. Rent savings and incentive models can be incorporated into the program, whereby young people are expected to pay a small percentage of their income as rent which will be returned to the young person at the end of the program, to help build their financial capacity.

Identifying Stock for Supported Youth Housing

In Victoria, 13,800 young people presented alone (that is, not as part of a family group) when seeking assistance from  Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) in 2018–2019.* On 2016 Census night, 25 per cent of the total homelessness population were young people.

However, approximately three per cent of social housing in Australia is allocated to young  people aged 15 to 24. If this allocation is applied to the Big Housing Build, the initiative will only increase the supply of  housing for young people by approximately 370 dwellings across Victoria.

In order to ensure that young people benefit from the new housing stock that will be delivered by Victoria’s Big Housing Build, at least 15 per cent (1,800 dwellings) should be quarantined for young people and matched with appropriate support. The Victorian Government could identify 1,800 dwellings out of the Big Housing Build and put them in a youth focused transitional housing system.

An Integrated Housing and Support Framework

While making more social housing available is a critical first step, there’s a further need to connect young people with models of supported housing that are appropriate for their needs. In other words, while housing may end an individual episode of homelessness, good case management and support breaks the cycle and provides a pathway to independence.

It is therefore important to recognise the characteristics of youth homelessness, and how it differs from adult homelessness. Young people who experience homelessness at an early age are forced to take on a range of adult responsibilities, without having been given the time and support to develop the knowledge and skills required. This includes how to maintain a property and their tenancy rights and responsibilities.

Young people are being supported for extended periods of time in models of care that are designed for brief periods of crisis and are unable to access the continuity of supports that they need to exit homelessness permanently. There is a clear and significant gap in the service system for young people experiencing homelessness with medium to high support needs.

Therapeutic support to help young people heal from trauma is lacking in most homelessness and housing program design. Therapeutic support focuses on supporting young people to develop positive strategies for dealing with stress and anxiety, emotional regulation and building strategies for healing and recovery. Therapeutic support will also lay the foundations for young people to successfully sustain their tenancies and move between different housing options including transition into private rental.

A youth housing program  must provide integrated, sustained support comprising housing, case management and therapeutic support in order to  address the complex personal and structural causes of their homelessness. This framework aims to build the independence and resilience of young people experiencing homelessness and their capacity to sustain social housing and successfully  transition into the private rental market.

Medium-term Supported Housing Models for Young People

For many young people experiencing homelessness, a form of  medium‑term supported housing is needed as a pathway to independent living at the conclusion of an eight-week stay in a refuge.

However, young people reveal a strong sense of frustration with the housing and homelessness system as many  experiences significant transience between short-term stays and support from different services. Some young people report spending years between refuges. It is imperative that there is an expansion of the availability and models of medium-term  supported housing options that is paired with step-up step-down long-tail support. With appropriate supports in place, a ‘youth specific’ transitional housing model is an important setting to grow the practical and emotional skills necessary for a  young person to transition from crisis to independence.

In 2020, Melbourne City Mission (MCM) developed a new housing program for young people, the Youth Housing Initiative (YHI), to support young people experiencing homelessness to transition to independence.

*This figure accounted for 15 per cent of the total number of people seeking assistance from the SHS.

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