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Homeless young people have a significantly higher prevalence of adverse health issues and greater levels of contact with the justice system. AAP/Mick Tsikas

New homelessness report shows the cost of waiting for early intervention

New findings from the Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia research project, released on Thursday, show the rising costs of health and justice services associated with homelessness.

The homeless young people in the study reported significantly higher prevalence of adverse health issues than the general population, or even compared to other unemployed, job-seeking youth. This created an average additional cost, compared to the unemployed group, of A$6,744 per person per year.

Homelessness also means considerably greater contact with and involvement in the justice system. This was an average cost of $8,242 higher than for the unemployed group. The total cost offsets for young people becoming homeless is therefore an average of $14,986 per person per year.

On the basis of the 41,780 young people between aged 15 and 24 who were clients of Specialist Homelessness Services in 2014-15 and presented alone rather than in a family group, the total annual cost to the Australian economy of additional health and justice services is an estimated $747 million – or $626 million annually more than for unemployed youth.

This $747 million exceeds the total cost – approximately $619 million – of providing Specialist Homelessness Services to the 256,000 people (young and old) assisted by the system over the same period.

Has ‘early intervention’ influenced policy?

Early intervention to arrest the onset of youth homelessness is not a new idea.

Debate about early intervention started in the 1990s following several research projects that proffered evidence that it was possible:

  • it was advocated in a parliamentary report on youth homelessness in 1995;

  • it was examined by a government taskforce in 1996-97; and

  • after a pilot program, the first early intervention program for at-risk and homeless young people, Reconnect, was launched.

But apart from Reconnect, little has been done to develop Australia’s early intervention capacity. This is despite “youth homelessness” having had a visible profile in the media and in public debate. This is undoubtedly in large part due to the 1989 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission inquiry into youth homelessness.

Twenty-five years later, an independent National Youth Commission Inquiry into Youth Homelessness revisited the same issue in much the same way. It found the problem had not been substantially redressed.

In December 2008, a federal government white paper placed “early intervention” on the policy agenda as a means of “turning off the tap”. But little was done in six years of Labor governments.

And, despite a roundtable on prevention and early intervention convened in 2014 by then-social services minister Kevin Andrews, the Abbott and Turnbull governments have done nothing to give effect to the framework so positively received.

Specialist Homelessness Services assisted 250,000 men, women and children in 2013-14. Nearly one-third (30%) were single individuals. Another one-third were sole parents with children (33%). Just less than one-third were other families (29%). The balance consisted of “other groups” of non-related persons (7%).

In 2013-14, of the 76,200 individuals who were alone when they presented to services, 44,414 were young people aged 15-24 years – or nearly six out of every ten single clients.

Widening the debate

The debate about responding to homelessness has too often been confined to claims about increasing homelessness services or reforming homelessness services. The overall costs and benefits are not considered. The huge demand-driven costs associated with young people becoming homeless are not factored in.

Policies that respond to homelessness in ways that avoid these costs have to be more seriously considered. Our report’s findings provide a strong economic rationale for investing in early intervention to stem the flow of young people into homelessness.

And for those young people who become homeless despite early intervention – or who were already living independently prior to homelessness – the policy imperative is to support them to exit homelessness as quickly as possible.

For these young people, this involves setting them up in safe, secure and appropriate housing quickly – or rapid rehousing.

A rapid and agile response has proved difficult to deliver because it requires quick access to some form of appropriate youth housing. The most important issue is wrap-around integrated support for young people to remain in education, training or employment as a way of replicating – as well as can be achieved – the all-inclusive support that families provide.

Waiting for early intervention and an adequate response to youth homelessness feels like “waiting for Godot”, as the two homeless men did in Samuel Beckett’s famous absurdist play. But, as the findings of our research show, the Australian community and economy are paying the substantial cost of the status quo.

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