Motions: Homelessness Week

Wednesday July 31, 2019

Mr BELL (Mount Gambier) (11:30): I move:

That this house—

(a) acknowledges the importance of Homelessness Week;

(b) acknowledges the important role that Ruby’s house plays in reunifying young homeless people with their families; and

(c) calls on the state government to provide funding for more supported accommodation options for young people aged between 15 and 18 who cannot be reunified with their families.

Next week is Homelessness Week, an important time to highlight this issue and this year's theme, 'Housing ends homelessness'. Around Australia right now more than 116,000 people are homeless; that is one in 200 people on any given night. Two in five of these are under the age of 25. Any way you look at it, those are incredibly sad statistics.

There can be many reasons for homelessness, including long-term unemployment, mental or chronic illness, disability and discrimination, but the main causes are poverty, family violence and being simply unable to afford rent. There is no simple definition of 'homeless'. Although we tend to assume being homeless means sleeping rough out in the elements, it is a far more hidden problem than that. The 2016 census shows only 7 per cent of those classified as homeless were sleeping rough. The majority are in crisis or transitional accommodation, rooming houses, caravan parks or just sleeping on a friend's couch. Having a home, a stable environment to come home to every night, is something many of us take for granted.

Homelessness can affect every demographic, but those who experience it at a young age are particularly vulnerable. Young people are at particular risk if this cycle begins early in life. In those teenage years, there are already so many pressures—education, family, social relationships, future work—and not having anywhere to live is a major burden.

There are two agencies providing homelessness services for young people in the Limestone Coast—AC Care and Ruby's. It is important to mention that there are no homeless shelters in the Limestone Coast as there are in capital cities, so if you are a young person who suddenly finds themselves without a bed for the night, it is very difficult to know where to turn. By speaking to local agencies, I can see there is a distinct gap for young people who cannot or should not be reunified with their families and cannot afford to go out on their own.

Trish Spark is the manager of homelessness and community services for AC Care in Mount Gambier. I asked her to tell me a story to demonstrate this gap in services and she told me about Jenny. Jenny, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is a 17 year old studying year 12 and working part-time in a supermarket. She is from a blended family and her relationship with her stepfather has broken down to the point where she can no longer live at home. She is couch surfing out of town in what Trish knows to be an unsafe environment.

Jenny is trying to access Centrelink payments but is struggling to gain approval for the allowance and does not earn enough to pay rent. There are no vacancies in AC Care's transitional properties right now, so the only emergency accommodation available is a motel or caravan park, but neither will accommodate people under the age of 18. Even if AC Care could find accommodation for Jenny, she does not fit the South Australian Housing Authority criteria, which state she must have a long-term outcome post-crisis and be able to self-fund from her next payday.

All Trish can do at the moment is continue to keep an eye on Jenny, give her vouchers and wait for a place in one of her traditional properties to open up, which relies on someone else in need leaving. As Trish says:

Early intervention is required so Jenny can remain engaged in both study and work. If she is forced to disengage, her future prospects are dim.

Jenny is doing everything she can to take advantage of life's opportunities, but it is becoming harder by the day.

Jenny is the face of this gap between services. Because she cannot be reunified with her family, she is not deemed suitable for Ruby's. She does not fit into the criteria for AC Care's traditional housing and is unable to support herself. So what happens to Jenny now? She is living in an unsafe place and could be forced to stay there for months and, although services are aware of her, they cannot do much for her.

AC Care provides independent living arrangements in transitional properties, but it is often full and there are problems with having a vulnerable young person live with people who are much older than them. There are currently four people between 15 and 18 who fit the criteria and are on the waiting list for their transitional accommodation, including a young mother, and it may be many months before a place opens.

Trish told me that supported youth accommodation is desperately needed in the regions, even something as simple as a traditional house solely dedicated towards supporting young people until other options become available. During the last financial year, there were 28 young people aged between 15 and 18 whom AC Care helped find some form of accommodation. I would also like to mention that AC Care's emergency accommodation unit in Mount Gambier has been funded by the local community, not the state government.

AC Care's biannual homelessness lunch, which was begun by the late Barry Maney OAM, has raised $340,000 over the last eight years from generous local contributions. These funds have gone into tackling this issue locally, including financial counselling, tenancy education, employment programs and the emergency unit, so the Limestone Coast community are doing what they can to support local service agencies. There is also the Vulnerable Youth Framework in our region, with agencies such as headspace, Ruby's, AC Care, HYPA and Housing SA meeting fortnightly to discuss who needs urgent accommodation and to help refer them onto more help and support.

In South Australia, we are very fortunate to have an excellent program with Ruby's, which has been running in Mount Gambier for eight years and in Adelaide for more than 25. Ruby's Reunification Program is an important early intervention program that aims to resolve conflict and improve relationships between young people and their parents or caregivers. When a family is struggling and might be on the verge of a breakdown or losing their home, or children may be in danger of being removed by the Department for Child Protection, Ruby's is there to provide supported accommodation for these children. It is a voluntary therapeutic youth service, but referrals come via other services, like CAMHS or headspace, or even the child's own parents who want a safe space for their child.

There is a house in Mount Gambier with five bedrooms available to people between the ages of 12 and 17 who may not be able to live at home full time. Sometimes a young person comes with nothing but the clothes on their back and Ruby's supplies them with personal items, clothes and even groceries. There is always a staff member at the house around the clock providing support and advice and continuing that all-important link to the family, so it is really a home away from home, a safe haven for children going through family issues.

Sharon Gray has been the coordinator at Ruby's in Mount Gambier for two years and has given me some insight into this issue. Sharon says that the hardest thing is knowing that there are beds free and that there are young people out there who need help and support but who are not utilising the service, and that is probably because there is no possibility of reunification with the parents.

There are no locked doors at Ruby's; children are free to leave whenever they like. Instead of going to Ruby's, they are applying for unreasonable to live at home allowance from Centrelink. This allowance is being paid to kids as young as 15 who have no life skills, no concept of how to manage money or how to find a home. Not many people I know are going to rent to a 15 year old, so again that gap and the need for supported accommodation become more apparent. At any given time, Sharon says there might be anywhere from 20 to 30 young people in the Limestone Coast who fit into this category who are slipping between the gaps offered.

I am sure young people may think they can live on their own, but many do not have the ability or capacity to do this. Two stories in The Advertiser have concerned me during the last week; one revealed it is costing $7.2 million a year for emergency accommodation for homeless people and many of these are women and children seeking refuge from family violence situations. The cost is one thing, but of more concern to me was that the number of people seeking emergency accommodation has sharply risen from 4,880 in 2017-18 to 6,573 in 2018-19.

The other article was about statistics that show more than 100 children are spending nights in emergency accommodation in the care of hired staff, and these numbers are not improving. For young people to grow up into happy, healthy, educated, functioning adults who contribute positively to our society, we need to give them the best start we can in life. If that support cannot be provided at home, and cannot be provided at a service, we need to look at other ways we can provide such support.

Of course, there is no easy fix for homelessness; it is an incredibly complex issue. We need a collaborative approach between agencies, all levels of government and the involvement of local communities. It is an issue that is different for each region and each region needs specific approaches. I decided to speak out about this when my electorate office was made aware that tents had been given to young people and families in need of emergency accommodation. This occurred because there was no emergency accommodation available. This was a real shock to me and I felt it my duty to highlight this issue.

Service agencies in our region are doing the best they can with the resources they have, often within strict criteria. I cannot imagine how tough it would be to tell a 15-year-old child in need that you cannot do anything for them. I ask the state government to provide funding for more supported accommodation and look at the conditions around some of the existing supported accommodation so that more young people can be accommodated in the Limestone Coast region.