Homelessness and children

Across Australia 65,236 children accessed Specialist Homelessness Services in 2016-17, according to the latest statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Of those accessing support 47,325 children were under 9 years old.

Studies into families and homelessness have revealed a variety of detrimental effects on a child’s health, and education as well as future socioeconomic status, which can perpetuate the cycle of homelessness in adulthood.

Launch Housing has been actively involved in studying children and homelessness for 25 years. We commissioned the first Australian research into family homelessness in 1992, undertaken by Jean McCaughey (from the Australian Institute of Family Studies).

This study found that preventing homelessness is better than trying to find a cure, and a lack of affordable housing is the main cause of homelessness.

Nearly three decades later, these facts about children and homelessness unfortunately remain clear, consistent and unequivocally alarming. 

Why do children experience homelessness?

There are a range of reasons children experience homelessness and the latest statistics reveal a continuing rise. In the past five years, the AIHW revealed a startling 67.8% increase in children experiencing homelessness in Victoria. The AIHW cited 19,847 children under 14 years old accessed Specialist Homelessness Services 2016-17.

The reasons why children experience homelessness are varied and can include domestic and family violence, a housing crisis, financial crisis, poverty, and mental health challenges.  However, the primary reason women and children experience a housing crisis is due to domestic and family violence. Childhood homelessness can adversely affect health, education, family relationships and community connectedness.

The first 1,000 days

What occurs from conception till two years of a person’s life and affects the whole body with profound implications over the course of life. Research by The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne revealed that what happens during the first 1,000 days of a child’s life is crucial. It has profound implications over a lifetime, as the majority of critical development happens at this stage.

Children need green space, opportunities to learn to play, nutritious food, and safe and supportive families and communities to thrive. Compared to those in stable housing situations, children experiencing homelessness are at greater risk of experiencing disadvantage over their lifetime.

Health and wellbeing

It’s challenging to find housing, maintain health, a routine, education and manage medical needs when families experience homelessness, the impact of which can continue even after moving into stable housing. An experience of homelessness is highly destabilising and traumatising. It can make children feel unsafe, sad, and angry. Family routines provide children with stability, control and a sense of security.

(Image: by Unsplash)

Studies show that the impact of childhood homelessness means children are more likely to require clinical care for health issues such as:

  • Ear infections
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Asthma
  • Dental problems
  • Nutritional deficits
  • Emergency room use and hospitalisation
  • Developmental delays
  • Mental health diagnoses

However, they are less likely to have access to health services to address these issues—usually as a result of increased mobility, lack of transport, and financial difficulties.

Prevention through education

A child’s learning and development is integral to their overall health and wellbeing, as well as ensures stable, happy, and productive lives. There is a strong connection between intergenerational poverty, and educational attainment. It’s also widely recognised that low levels of academic achievement is common in Australia’s most disadvantaged communities.

Childhood homelessness makes it difficult to maintain attendance and academic levels in school, and transiency has lasting implications. The consequence of each school change can result in a dramatic six-month learning gap, which can contribute to fewer employment opportunities in future.

In 2015, Launch Housing started the Education Pathways Program to minimise the disruption to education experienced by children.

This can perpetuate the cycle of intergenerational poverty, leading to an experience of homelessness later in life. Youth can also face a range of other difficulties including:

  • Instability and emotional isolation
  • Difficulty establishing and maintaining friendships
  • Discrimination and stigma in the schoolyard or playground
  • Stress and reduced concentration skills
  • Learning delays
  • Increased likelihood to leave school early

A child cannot be expected to thrive if they are transient, which is why early intervention is imperative.

What can we do to help?

The service system has not been adequately designed to respond to families experiencing homelessness. Families with children have extreme difficulties accessing Specialist Homelessness Services. Studies have shown that children need coordinated prevention, early intervention, and better crisis support.

Launch Housing offers a range of programs and supports to prevent homelessness for families. We intervene early to stabilise housing and offer better crisis support. Learn more about Launch Housing’s children specialist support programs and the Education Pathways Program.