What does it feel like to be homeless? And does homelessness early in life cause permanent trauma?
For the majority of Australia’s population who, relative to many other nations, live comfortably buffered within their first world “bubble,” homelessness is not a situation or circumstance with which most would routinely expect to contend.
Yet, for an increasing number of people in Australia, homelessness is a reality of day to day life, and unfortunately, it is also the reality for an ever increasing number of youths in our communities, who will experience homelessness, perhaps temporarily or over the longer term, as they move into their adult years.
It is a disturbing fact that young people are drastically over-represented within our homeless population. According to a recent Census estimate, 105,000 Australians were homeless, with 47% of this number under the age of 25, and those between 12 and 18 years of age constituting the largest homeless group (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012).
Yet it seems even this figure is likely to have been underrepresented in the homeless data.
It is often the case for many youths who are homeless or “couch surfing,” that their homelessness is often masked because their characteristics look no different to other young person who may be simply visiting with a friend on Census night (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012).
For example, a “usual address” is often indicated for couch-surfers in the Census data, either because the young person doesn’t want to disclose to the people they are staying with that they are unable to go home, or the person completing the Census form assumes the young person staying with them will return to their home.
My own experience of homelessness as a teen was consistent with current anecdotal evidence in homelessness data, in that, my homeless “status” was not something I wanted anyone to know about.
The indignity and uncertainty of couch surfing at friends’ homes, relying on the generosity of their families for weeks on end as I overstayed my welcome, was a source of shame that I avoided sharing with anyone, either then or even retrospectively.
Indeed, the on-going humiliation over a period of months, where I was relying on friends to negotiate with their parents to allow me to stay on, remains indelibly imprinted within my memory.
The statistics indicate some disturbing yet consistent trends in terms of causal factors that frequently contribute to youth homelessness. Sadly, for many young people who find themselves bereft of the safe refuge of home, homelessness is the unexpected outcome of intra-familial dysfunction, with family conflict and domestic violence reportedly the main cause of youth homelessness in Australia (MacKenzie and Chamberlain, 2003).
Other causal factors include substance addiction, parental death, chronic unemployment, parental neglect, socio-economic hardship, mental health issues and a myriad other adverse factors.
Essentially, I think it is most often the case that teens find themselves homeless or experience the absence of a family support system, predominantly because the resources available from within that family unit, emotional or otherwise, are inherently lacking or in short supply.
Equally concerning is the finding that, without prompt intervention and housing support at a local level, homeless young people are evidenced to be more likely to transition over the longer term to chronic adult homelessness (MacKenzie and Chamberlain, 2003).