Having a stable home that provides a sense of security and support for a child is one of the basic requirements for their wellbeing.
A stable home provides a child with a sense of place where they belong and feel safe, where their friends and extended family can visit, where they keep their possessions, and a base from which they can attend school and engage positively with their local community.
A child who is a member of a homeless family does not have this stability and can be affected by a wide range of issues that put their welfare and healthy development at risk.
High levels of stress, a variety of physical and mental health problems, friction between family members, fewer positive connections with friends and others in the community and poor performance at school as a result of inconsistent attendance are all associated with homelessness, and all have a potential life-long impact on a child’s wellbeing.
Not surprisingly, it is thought that children who experience homelessness are at more risk of youth homelessness and later to adult homelessness.
How many children are at risk in WA?
Given the transient nature of being homeless, it is often difficult to calculate the size of the problem.
The latest available figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicate that in 2011 there were 1491 WA children under 12 years of age who were homeless, representing 15.5 per cent of all homeless people.
However, there are even more children who experience significant problems because of housing issues. For example, the ABS estimated in 2011 a further 1384 WA children under 12 lived in “marginal” housing, which means the home is not adequate for reasons such as no security of tenure, being overcrowded or a lack of basic facilities.
Rightly, youth homelessness at times gains significant community attention and it is incredibly important that these young people are supported and provided safe places to live so their health, wellbeing and education are supported.
However, it is just as important that children in their formative years are afforded the same focus and for this reason we must assess and respond to the specific needs of children when families become homeless or are vulnerable to homelessness.
The causes of homelessness are complex but the contributing factors are well known.
Economic circumstances such as poverty and lack of affordable housing increase the risk and rate of homelessness, and personal issues such as mental health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, and family breakdown also put families at risk.
A big proportion of homeless children who receive services from agencies are in the company of only their mother; or a female carer.
We know this is predominantly due to family and domestic violence.
The children in these situations are likely to have witnessed violence and it is imperative to the child’s long-term wellbeing that the trauma they experience is addressed as part of the services they receive.
A significant proportion of children who are members of families that access homeless services are Aboriginal children and young people – for example records from 2011-12 show that nearly half of the up to nine years age group were Aboriginal.
A policy brief I recently released identifies the programs that are proved to make a difference in these situations and provide some stability to children, young people and families.
For example, Homelessness and Parenting Program Initiative from South Australia is a mobile service that reaches out to families who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
The program provides an early intervention program and, importantly, provides resources and support for children.
Other programs help families who experience difficulty in maintaining tenancies or home ownership because of personal or financial circumstances.
In addition, there are several Safe at Home programs which focus on supporting women and children who have experienced family and domestic violence to stay in the home while the perpetrator of the violence leaves.
This is an important early intervention service that ensures action is taken before homelessness occurs, and the mother and children can begin to rebuild their lives within the security of their home.
The effectiveness of early intervention strategies can be boosted by using schools and health services to identify and provide support to vulnerable families and providing children with continuity of schooling.
There have been efforts to improve the delivery of services to families and to link the homelessness and domestic and family violence service sectors, and while some challenges remain, it is very important this work continues.
Adults who had a safe and happy upbringing will often recall the security and connectedness of the family home as influential in their early lives.
It is vital we do all we can to provide the opportunity for all WA children to have these same experiences.
A/Commissioner for Children and Young People WA
The West Australian