Refugee youth facing a new kind of homelessness

24 October 2019
Image: Pixabay.


Old men sleeping rough dominate the public perception of homelessness. But many young people from refugee backgrounds are sleeping in massively overcrowded accommodation, in cars, or on the floor of restaurant kitchens. They may have a roof, but they certainly don’t have a home.

A study of young refugees at the Australian Catholic University has found many go through a period of homelessness because of the lack of appropriate resettlement services.

Youth work academic Dr Jen Couch followed 24 refugee young people over five years as they moved through a series of insecure, unsafe, temporary places to sleep. While a few managed to stay in school or work, most lost education and work opportunities because of lack of secure housing.

“Some of these places should be condemned. They are very, very overcrowded. There are people sleeping on floors, sharing beds. It’s damp, there are massive cracks in the walls, everyone is sick. They might leave because of the overcrowding and then they are sleeping in cars or in the back of a restaurant or on someone else’s couch,” said Dr Couch.

When the study began the young people were aged between 15 and 25 years. Most had arrived in Australia with their families under the humanitarian resettlement program, but families had broken down during the process of settling in Australia.

One young refugee explained the typical trajectory: “When I got here, we were moving all the time. I went to three secondary schools in the first year. They kept putting me in year 10 because that’s how old I was. But I didn’t understand anything because I had only been to school up to year 7 in the camp. I was failing everything, and my parents were angry. That’s when I started moving. I slept in all kinds of places. Like I never thought I would. My school expelled me for not attending and didn’t even look to see that I was sleeping all over Melbourne. And after that, now, I just move around and around. You know, they keep talking about African teenagers and crime, but tell me what else can we do. No school. No work. No family. No home.”

Dr Couch, who has worked with refugee youth since the 1980s, said the loss of supported transitional housing was a key cause of the problem.

“There used to be these big blocks of flats where they would get six months of transitional housing. The parents had a social worker, the kids had a youth worker and they were settled into school or work. Now they might get a couple of months, but they don’t have the ongoing support, so the families are not ready for life in Australia. The kids leave and then they are in this cycle of homelessness.”

Few young people in the study accessed homelessness services. “They don’t see themselves as homelessness and they don’t think people will help them. The homelessness services are not set up for these kids. The African boys feel like they have ‘gang member’ tattooed on their forehead.”

The good news is that for most the years of homelessness eventually come to an end. Most young people in the study were eventually rescued by members of their own community, who helped them find stable accommodation.

“Quite often there was someone just a few steps ahead of them, whom they met at the mosque or through a community organisation. Some continued at school and were helped by teachers. A couple of the girls married, marriages they didn’t want to be in but where they felt they would ultimately be better off.”

For a few the homelessness led down more drastic pathways: at the end of the study one was sleeping rough, one was in prison, and one had taken his own life: a reminder of the high stakes.

With thanks to ACU. Republished with permission from Melbourne Catholic, the online publication of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.


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