Why Listening to Homeless Children is Crucial

All children are invisible to adults to some extent, even those lucky enough to be born into a family with relative wealth or privilege. 

Consider a six-year-old as she walks into a doctor’s surgery with her mother. She can’t see over the reception desk and isn’t acknowledged by the receptionist. The magazines are for adults and the toys in the corner are for babies and toddlers. The chair in the waiting room is for adults and the girl’s feet don’t reach the ground. 

When she sees the doctor, he says hello to her but asks her mother to tell him what is wrong with her. Her mother describes the pain in her tummy incorrectly. The doctor says he wants to ‘rule out appendicitis’, but she doesn’t know what this is or why he would want to use a ruler to rule it out.

The doctor’s hands are cold as he presses on her tummy and it hurts; the girl feels scared but doesn’t say anything. This is an ordinary and everyday experience. All children will have experiences like this, and they become an ordinary part of childhood. 

Our society uses explicit and implicit messaging to teach children to accept things as they are and that adults know better than them. Whether it is a small thing or a big thing, many children do not speak up when they feel uncomfortable or when something is wrong. In the above scenario, the adults would describe the same events differently and consequently, the experience of the child is easily missed.

In a society where it is common for adults to misunderstand or overlook the experience of children, how do we ensure our vulnerable children — such as children experiencing homelessness — have a voice?

Shayna’s Story

Three years. That’s how long 12-year-old Shayna*(1) spent sleeping on a blow-up mattress, bouncing between the houses of various family members.

Shayna and her four siblings became homeless in 2018 after their mother broke free from an abusive relationship. Since then the family of six struggled to find permanent housing, eventually settling for the loungeroom floor of their grandmother’s three-bedroom home.

Although grateful to have a roof over her head, the chaos of living with nine other people took a toll on Shayna.

 “I just felt really crowded and overwhelmed, and stressed like all the time,” she said.

Shayna would go to school every day worried her classmates would discover she was homeless.

“If they found out I would get stressed and angry,” she said.

“They would tell other people and everyone would know I didn’t have my own house.”

Shayna’s mum is a recovering drug user. Despite being clean for the last few years, she was often refused private rentals due to her history and the number of children she had.

The possibility of going into care became a scary reality for Shayna and the relationship with her mother deteriorated.

 “I felt like I couldn’t really do anything. She would always get really overwhelmed and get really cranky and it would affect everyone,” Shayna said.

“I would go online when I had time, or when I was bored, and try to help mum get a house.

“It made me start to get behind in work and lose focus in class because I was thinking about it all the time.”

Although it’s clear that unstable and unsuitable housing has impacted Shayna’s education it’s not something she’s raised with teachers. It’s telling that Shayna would rather fall behind in school than approach her teacher about the disruptive nature of her home life. 

Three years without a bed. Three years without privacy. Three years of uncertainty.

Kids are Individuals in Their Own Right

Shayna’s story isn’t unique. Her voice is echoed by the 1,949 West Australian children and young people are homeless.(2)

While a child’s experience of homelessness is vastly different to that of adults, their specific challenges often go unnoticed. Children who access homelessness services with their families are of course part of that family system. They are also individuals in their own right.

Adults accessing homelessness support services are likely to receive a service response tailored to his or her unique needs — think mental health support, assistance to overcome substance use issues or to understand violent relationships. However, children in these families are typically viewed as an extension of their parents and therefore miss out on the bespoke support that they need.  

During the three years she was homeless, Shayna rarely recalls being asked by an adult what she needs or how she feels. 

In reflection, her one wish was simple: “Involve me more.”

Shayna simply wanted to fit in with her classmates and have the same experiences commonly shared in most childhoods.

A quiet place to do homework. A cupboard for her clothes. A birthday party.

“My friends had birthday parties all the time, people over whenever they wanted,” Shayna said.

“When I would go over to my friends’ I kind of felt jealous that they had their own house and room and it made me feel different from them.”

After moving into a home through Centrecare’s Family Accommodation Service, Shayna finally had a birthday party for the very first time.

“It was really fun and I felt normal.”

The Long -Term

We know that children who experience homelessness with their parents are more likely to experience homelessness as adults and that experiencing homelessness in childhood has immediate and long-term consequences.(3)

The Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia Survey(4) surveyed youth in the 13-25 age range (median age of 18) and this survey provided important insights into the needs and experiences of young people experiencing homelessness. The survey showed that many young people who experience family homelessness often do so as a result of domestic violence or substance abuse issues within the family.

Nine out of 10 homeless young people surveyed in The Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia project reported that they have seen violence between family members and one in six had run away from home more than ten times because of violence. For many, this happened at a very young age (median age of first-time leaving home was 10 years.)

When children become young people who access homelessness services in their own right, we seek to understand and support them as individuals and our data collection for this cohort has improved as evidenced by this survey. However, the unique experiences of younger children impacted by family homelessness is largely unexplored.

There is a need to boost programs directed at children in difficult home environments, but this can only be done when we listen to their experiences. 

There is still limited visibility of children in homelessness data — particularly in situations of overcrowding. Limited data collection means the experience of children in homeless families is largely disregarded.

Inadequate data collection also means the services that are delivered are much less likely to consider the needs of children as individuals but the importance of prevention and early intervention services for these children is clear. 

To make meaningful change it is critical that as much focus is placed on children as is placed on the adult clients who access homelessness support programs. Children will of course benefit if their parents and families are supported to address homelessness risk factors like family violence and substance use. However, kids like Shayna are also in need of child-specific support; things like assistance to talk to teachers about their home situation, advice on how to navigate difficult conversations with peers, tutoring and connecting them with local sport and recreational activities.   

It’s also vital that we recognise and address the impact of homelessness on children in the here and now. This is well expressed by Emerging Minds in their submission to the 2021 Senate enquiry into homelessness.

Housing stress impacts housing stability and parenting capacity which has an impact on children’s social and emotional wellbeing and development. Frequent moves impact on social connection (educational and community) which impacts on the support network of the family and can have cascading impacts on children’s mental health as they grow and develop.’(5)

The Federal Government’s Inquiry into homelessness in Australia didn’t include a single quote from a child about his or her experience of homelessness. It’s difficult to imagine how meaningful change will occur if we continue to omit the views and experiences of an entire generation.

Homelessness Australia made the case that: ‘Rigorous research has shown that there is no single intervention more effective in ending homelessness and preventing its reoccurrence than providing public housing.’(6) If we consider that in Western Australia, 98 per cent of private rentals are not affordable for people earning the minimum wage and zero per cent are affordable for people in receipt of Newstart Allowance, the importance of public housing is clear.(7)

As of June 30, 2020, there were 7,469 children and young people were on the public housing wait list in Western Australia.(8)

It is a sad truth that most children do not expect to be acknowledged by adults or to have their needs considered. Vulnerable children, such as those experiencing homelessness are even less likely to be able to advocate for themselves.

Children rely on adults to support them and as a society, we have a collective responsibility to ensure all children are given the opportunities and supports they need to reach their full potential. This is the right of every child(8) and ensuring children are valued and given a voice is fundamental to achieving this. Kids like Shayna are relying on us. 

*Name changed to maintain confidentiality.

By Maddie McLeod and Amy Green

AA

This article first appeared in Parity Magazine, Vol. 43 ‘Ending Homelessness in Western Australia’.


Endnotes

1. 12-year-old girl accessing Centrecare Family Accommodation Service, Interview, 28 October 2021.

2. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2020, Census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness, 2016, Youth homelessness, ABS.

3. Flatau P, et al 2013, Lifetime and intergenerational experiences of homelessness in Australia, AHURI Final Report No.200, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Melbourne.

4. Flatau, P, Thielking M, MacKenzie D and Steen A 2015, The Cost Of Youth Homelessness In Australia Study: The Australian Youth Homelessness Experience, Snapshot Report 1.

5. Australian Government 2021, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, Inquiry into homelessness in Australia, Final report, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

6. Australian Government 2021, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs, Inquiry into homelessness in Australia, Final report, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.

7. Western Australia Anglicare, Anglicare WA Rental Affordability Snapshot 2021, Anglicare WA, Perth.

8. Commissioner for Children and Young People WA 2021, Profile of Children and Young People in WA – 2021, Commissioner for Children and Young People WA, Perth.