Fire highlights the need for action on youth homelessness
Fatal Christchurch fire highlights the need for action on youth homelessness
The death of young Christchurch resident, Corey James Mclean, over the weekend highlights the growing problem of youth homelessness in New Zealand. With more than half of New Zealand’s homeless under the age of 25, youth homelessness is not only an economic drain on New Zealand, it also signals the tragic loss of hope and potential, and in this case, the tragic loss of a life.
General Manager of social development agency, Lifewise, says: “Youth homelessness is, sadly, a growing issue. It’s worse in the current economic climate with the numbers of families living in poverty, but it’s also an increasing problem in Auckland and Christchurch in particular, as the result of housing shortages.”
Sadly, homelessness is often the experience of young people leaving foster care, which happens at the age of 17 in New Zealand. While the many young people leave care to a safe and long-term home, studies in the United Kingdom, United States and Australia indicate the average rate of subsequent homelessness for youth transitioning from foster care is as high as 43%. This illuminates a significant problem across New Zealand.
“80% of the homeless youth we see have been in foster care,” explains Moira. “These young people, like many others their age, are vulnerable, however due to broken connections with their family and the community, they have less resources and often less resilience – they’re often ill prepared for independent living and have poor access to income or appropriate housing.”
It’s a myth that homeless people are old men with alcohol problems. The reality is that some of our most vulnerable young people, fall through the gaps in New Zealand and are often ignored, and overlooked. Agencies like Lifewise are working to tackle, and ultimately end, homelessness with their ‘housing first’ and ‘hand up, not hand out’ approaches.
“At Lifewise, we believe that it is possible to end homelessness.” says Moira. “We need to be getting alongside young people and those at risk of homelessness early, in order to keep people in housing, and support those without housing into stable accommodation. A youth development approach – supporting young people to make their own decisions as they move towards adulthood – would certainly help.”
Poto Williams, Labour MP in Christchurch and long-time supporter of Lifewise also claimed that “more needed to be done to make safe housing available for young people.”
Indeed, it can be seen that providing a range of affordable housing options is inevitably needed as part of the long-term solution, as there currently just aren’t enough viable (read: safe and secure) options to begin to tackle the problem. Supported youth housing has also been put forward as a solution and, although there are some good models out there, these struggle to secure sustainable funding.
“Lifting incomes to families, as well as policy shifts around the age of leaving care would make a huge difference too,” explains Moira. “People aren’t eligible for many services until the age of 18, so when their foster care support runs out on their seventeenth birthday, they are forced into a no-mans-land, where there aren’t a lot of options – the alternative gap year.”
It’s clear that we need to do more to tackle the issues surrounding homelessness in New Zealand, and we especially need a youth-focused approach. There is no one path to homelessness – instead it is a complex issue requiring collaborative and ‘out of the box’ thinking as we work together to find solutions. Corey losing his life raises questions to which we need answers – he was someone’s son, many people’s former classmate and to still others, a friend. It truly was a tragedy.
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Lifewise’s work with homeless people is focused on assisting homeless people into housing. Lifewise also provides food for homeless people, through Merge, a community café on K Road in Auckland. Lifewise is successfully intervening in the issue of street homelessness and since late 2010, Lifewise has housed more than 357 people directly from the streets into a range of accommodations both within and outside the inner city and coordinated support services to help them retain that accommodation. On average, Lifewise assists 70 clients a month, with 5 people typically housed a month. Lifewise is now exploring ways to prevent people becoming homeless.
Lifewise believes there are three key factors critical to ending homelessness. Initially, there needs to be an adequate stock of affordable housing, and supports in place to ensure homeless people maintain tenancies and are not simply placed in accommodation. Secondly, income issues need to be addressed. To achieve stability and security, everyone needs an adequate income. Creating educational, training and employment opportunities is thus a critical aspect of ending homelessness. Young people are particularly vulnerable at present, given the complexities of the benefit system. There needs to be a safety net to provide support for those young people struggling to meet the criteria to access benefits. Finally, connections play a crucial role in the bid to end homelessness. Connections to whanau, friends and community, enable an individual to thrive.
Lifewise works to a ‘housing first’ model -an internationally acknowledged model, which has been hugely successful over the last decade in the USA. Lifewise has also tackled the issue of uncoordinated services – a range of mainstream agencies are onsite at the Lifewise Hub, enabling homeless people to access support services (mental health services, drug & alcohol support, probation services, housing and welfare) in a one-stop shop. Lifewise is working to influence homelessness intervention practice at a national level so that soup kitchens and night shelters are no longer considered the appropriate response to street homelessness in New Zealand.
Homelessness can be viewed on a continuum, and ‘rough sleeping’ is just the tip of the iceberg- there are countless more ‘hidden homeless’, couch-surfing, living in hostels, caravan parks and people’s garages. While this temporarily may be seen as preferable to sleeping on the street, it is still homelessness, as the accommodation is often not deemed safe or secure. Homelessness can happen to anyone – we are all only three major life events away from homelessness.