New report shows families are the hidden face of homelessness

New report shows families are the hidden face of homelessness

A major report on family homelessness shows a growing number of Sydney families are struggling to gain secure accommodation and are being displaced by a critical shortage of rental accommodation and public housing while struggling with mental health issues, isolation and an outdated system geared towards the needs of individuals and not families.

The Wesley Report, More than a bed: Sydney’s homeless families speak out is the result of a study of 50 homeless families. It examines their experiences, the causes of homelessness and the impact on children.

While previous studies have looked at individual homelessness this new Wesley Report switches the focus to homeless families in Sydney. It is estimated that homeless families currently account for between a quarter and a third of the homeless population in Australia.

As part of an 11-point plan to help homeless families the CEO of Wesley Mission the Rev Dr Keith Garner has called for increased community and public housing, an integrated, family-friendly approach to support services and a shift towards more appropriate integrated models of care and a more flexible system that is user-friendly for families applying for accommodation.

“Alarmingly, the population of homeless families is on the rise,” Dr Garner said.

“They are in our suburbs, sleeping on the floor in a relative or friend’s house, sleeping in their car, living in a refuge after they’ve left a violent partner, sitting patiently at Centrelink trying to arrange emergency accommodation or living with their three kids in a motel room until a vacancy comes up on the long waiting list for public housing.

“They’re mostly young, more often than not women, and they are almost always accompanied by young children. A growing number of families who have never experienced homelessness before have the overwhelming impression that the welfare system is complex, confusing and alienating.”

By far the most common reason for family homelessness was domestic violence, with more than four in 10 naming this as their number one reason for being homeless and almost half placing it in their top two. This is almost double the second most quoted cause, relationship breakdown or divorce.

Homeless families are often disconnected from their traditional networks of support – family, friends, known health professionals, schools and public transport. One in every five families lives more than 20 kilometres from their support networks.

Half of the homeless families surveyed discussed the need for appropriate accommodation. What is “appropriate” for people generally revolved around being “family friendly”, “areas where people have connections”, and long term.

Many of those in the study wanted to access private rental properties but given the tight market, were unable to compete with real estate agents who “auction off” properties, inflating market value beyond their reach.

“With the current limited supply of rental properties in Sydney and with average rental prices rising by 10-20 per cent a year, this is not likely to change soon,” Dr Garner said.

The report also found that new homeless families, in particular, do not know where to turn for help, and it is evident that there is no one, simple way to find appropriate help.

The Wesley Report also reveals that children in homeless families are socialised by the experience and can often repeat the pattern as adults. Again, highly successful long-term programs, like the State Government’s Brighter Futures initiative, show how to support these children at an early stage so that the cycle of disadvantage and despair does not become entrenched.

Early intervention is vital: more than half the adults surveyed for the report had been homeless as children.

“It is clear from these results that having a parent who has been homeless is a significant predictor of being homeless as an adult,” the report states. “More than half the respondents had parents who had been homeless. Poverty and alcohol are also common links, with more than half having had parents who had financial problems and issues with alcohol abuse.”

Experiencing violence or being bullied also appears to predispose people to later homelessness, as does violence and mental illness.

These issues can be seen repeated in the next generation, particularly in children aged 10 or over, when they start to have some independence.
This is when rates of violence increase, drug and alcohol abuse issues start and children come to the attention of the legal system.
Other key findings include:

  • Seven in 10 of those aged over 10 had experienced violence or bullying, and half had encountered problems because of drug or alcohol use.
  • Six in 10 of these children had been arrested or incarcerated, which is markedly higher than the general population, where less than one per cent of children aged 10–17 are involved in offending.
  • More than eight in 10 older children were having trouble at school.


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