If a child under the age of 16 is homeless or at risk of homelessness in the ACT they are highly vulnerable and at risk of harm, because there are no accommodation services in the ACT for these children.

For close to 20 years, the ACT child, youth and homelessness sectors have called for action to address the gap in accommodation services for children under the age of 16. Other Australian states have led the way in developing supportive accommodation services for children at risk of homelessness.

The Youth Coalition, Families ACT, ACTCOSS and ACT Shelter have presented the ACT Government with a clear solution, based on the most up-to-date research and evidence across Australia. We expect that they will now be able to move forward to address this issue, in partnership with the Canberra community.

Children who experience homelessness can come from all walks of life. There is rarely one single cause for a child to become homeless, but a range of complex factors that interact together and put pressure on families. Local and national research consistently shows that we need to support children and families early to prevent homelessness from occurring, while also providing appropriate accommodation supports for children who cannot stay at home.

This proposed service model responds to the gap in appropriate services and supports, including
accommodation, for children aged 8-15 who are experiencing or at risk of significant harm and/or
homelessness. Critically, while addressing the shortfall in accommodation services for children under the age of 16, it also responds to the primary risk factor leading to child and youth homelessness:
family conflict and breakdown. In addition to homelessness, family conflict and breakdown can lead to a range of other negative outcomes, such as disengagement from education, including school suspension, and possible involvement with statutory child protection and the criminal justice system.

The critical need for services to respond to the existing relationships that children have
with their families, across the spectrum of family involvement, is at the core of this service
model. Its central aim is to strengthen family functioning, including parenting capacity and
parent-child relationships. This aims to support children to remain with their family, while
also providing safe temporary and long-term accommodation options where necessary.
The model promotes the following outcomes:

Early intervention to prevent youth homelessness
• Reducing family conflict and breakdown to improve the well-being of children and
young people
• Changing life trajectories away from statutory services, including child protection and
the criminal justice system
• Reducing education disengagement, including in transitions from primary to high school, and to reduce school suspensions
• Building the capacity of the youth and family sector to engage in family-focused youth work

While local and national research in this area mainly focuses on young people aged 12-15, this service model recognises the importance of also responding to the needs of children in the ‘middle years’ (8-12 years). Children in this age group experience unique challenges and transitions, and these middle years represent a critical opportunity to prevent negative outcomes during adolescence, including youth homelessness.

The early intervention outreach component aims to improve the wellbeing of children aged 8-15 and their families by addressing the risk factors that increase family stress, through case management, family mediation and support. This service responds to early signs of family conflict, school disengagement, and anti-social behaviours such as problematic alcohol and other drug use and criminal activity, that increase the likelihood of family conflict and breakdown. The service would work across the spectrum of family contact and involvement.

Service example: The Youth Hope Program in NSW is an early intervention program, supporting children and young people aged 9-15 and their families, where a child or young person has been identified as at risk of significant harm. Through a therapeutic, wraparound service which may include home visits, counselling, parenting support and referrals to other health and community service providers, the program aims to support families to stay together, improve family functioning and child wellbeing and to prevent escalation into statutory child protection.

The short to medium-term respite/accommodation component would provide temporary accommodation to children, while supporting them to rebuild their relationships with their family through mediation and counselling of both child and family members. This provides a flexible, safe, home-like environment and a reliable alternative for children when they are unable or unwilling to stay at home. Families are actively engaged through mediation, counselling, and other supports, with the response adapting to changing family circumstances over time. Success may include children being supported to progressively transition back into the family home, or supporting improved relationships and support as they transition into alternative
accommodation.

Service example: Ruby’s Reunification Program in South Australia provides support and accommodation to young people aged 12-17 who plan to return home or would like to find other accommodation. This program has been successful in engaging with families
to help resolve conflict and improve relationships through family counselling. Young people involved in the program have the option to spend some nights at home, and some nights in Ruby’s accommodation services, providing ‘respite’ away from home. Young people can still access 24 hour support from the program while at home.

This component would provide a safe, stable, home-like environment for children and young people who cannot remain in the family home. This service provides long-term accommodation until a viable option is identified and a co-created exit plan is established, which crucially does not exit young people into homelessness (including homelessness services). This long-term support aims to prevent young people from becoming embedded into  street/homelessness lifestyles or cultures, and the associated trajectory into chronic homelessness, statutory child protection,
the justice system, or adverse health outcomes. Children would have access to the service prior to turning 16, and could remain supported within this long-term accommodation until early adulthood, and then continue to receive support after transitioning to independence.

Service example: The Lighthouse Foundation in Victoria provides home-like accommodation to young people aged 15-22 who cannot remain with
their family. This therapeutic and trauma-informed service accommodates up to four young people and two carers in each house, supported by psychologists and health professionals. When young people move into independent living, they have continued access to aftercare and outreach programs. An independent assessment found that 8 out of 10 young people who complete the program permanently exit out of
homelessness, creating $12 in social value for every dollar invested.

Development and implementation of the proposed service model must be underpinned by strong policy. A targeted ACT policy commitment and response to supporting children aged 8-15 and their families
needs to:

  • Establish responsibility for developing and implementing the service model across key ACT Government Directorates, including the Community Services Directorate (ACT Housing and CYPS), the Education Directorate, Health Policy Directorate and Justice and Community Safety Directorate,
    in partnership with the specialist homelessness sector and child, youth and family sector;
  • Articulate a clear and cohesive governance framework to provide oversight for the service model, to support effective collaboration, coordination and evaluation;
  • Build upon and contribute to the emerging Australian evidence base for how best to support children and young people aged 9-15 who are at risk of significant harm and/or homelessness, across the spectrum of need;
  • Align and embed the policy response into current and developing policy initiatives, such as Early Support by Design and the implementation of the ACT Housing Strategy.