I want to reflect on how the youth and youth homelessness sectors can achieve some long-overdue change so needed to develop a strategy to end youth homelessness and make a difference for the most disadvantaged young people in Australia.

Despite episodic public attention on the issue of youth homelessness, there is an unfortunate history of under-delivering. Part of the problem may be that young people are the least well-resourced and organised, and inexperience when it comes to the complexities and difficulties of politics and policy formation. In order to remedy this issue, we must rethink the status quo of youth homelessness services and work out what the youth homelessness sector and young people themselves need to do to bring about change and how that change agenda can be successfully advanced.

The National Youth Commission Australia Inquiries

 

On 8 March 2008, the independent National Youth Commission Australia into Youth Homelessness (NYCA) launched its 400-page report Australia’s Homeless Youth at an event in Sydney where the keynote speakers were Commissioner Brian Burdekin who had led the landmark Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) inquiry in youth homelessness in 1988-1989, and the new Federal Minister for Housing, Tanya Plibersek. Before the advent of social media, which is so pervasive today, the NYCA and its report to the Australian people received unprecedented radio, print, and TV media coverage. The first pilot of the ABC Q&A television format was trialled as a discussion about the NYCA report, with Minister Plibersek, Rhonda Galbally, and Major David Eldridge and Major Paul Moulds from The Salvation Army. The NYCA Inquiry report received testimony from 319 individuals, including many young people.

The NYCA Inquiry, modelled on the 1989 HREOC Inquiry, was funded by the Caledonia Foundation which also funded a feature documentary, The Oasis made by the award-winning production house, Shark Island Productions. Homeless young people participated in the film for over two years, courageously sharing their life experiences.

What is not so well-known, is that during the first week of the NYCA Inquiry being announced, there was expressed enthusiasm from many workers and community organisations, but also push back from some stalwarts in the homelessness sector – who said you couldn’t do this … we weren’t consulted … and, who appointed Narelle Clay, Father Wally Dethlefs, Major David Eldridge, and research academic David MacKenzie as commissioners? What authority do you have?’  On balance, the grumbles from a minority were overwhelmed by the rallying of the sector around this proactive strategy to effect policy change. There is a lesson here in how to begin something innovative without the expressed ‘permission’ or approval from everyone else.

The problems identified by the Commission in the 2008 Inquiry were broadly similar to what was reported two decades earlier in the HREOC Inquiry in 1989. However, since the HREOC Inquiry, the Australian economy had grown into the world’s 12th largest economy with one of the lowest levels of gross debt compared to other OECD countries; the homelessness service system has been developed and expanded substantially, yet there were more homeless young people in 2021 than in the years prior to 2008. When Commissioner Brian Burdekin conducted his Inquiry, he remarked on the ‘lack of research’, a deficit that was significantly addressed by the time of the 2008 Inquiry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a good deal of advocacy undertaken by various peak bodies supported by community organisations devoted to addressing youth homelessness. This was problem-focused advocacy at its best. Getting the attention of governments and the community was a high priority. A lot was achieved, and Commissioner Burdekin launched his HREOC Inquiry in large part because of the vigorous advocacy during the years prior. In some ways, the HREOC report could be considered a capstone accomplishment of 1980s advocacy that raised the profile of youth homelessness to a new and higher level of community awareness.

The second National Youth Commission Australia Inquiry into Youth Employment and Transitions was launched in March 2019 to explore how young people could be better prepared and supported in their transition from education to work, now and in the future. The Inquiry has heard from over 1,200 individuals and organisations at public hearings and community consultations across all states and the Northern Territory. Of the 1,200 people whom Commissioners and workshop leaders met face-to-face, more than half were young people of school age or early adulthood.

Both of the Commission’s Inquiries demonstrated the importance of deep engagement with young people and other stakeholders which far surpasses the many convenience surveys and questionnaires that are put out now purporting to express the voice of young people.

In August 2020, the NYCA convened the national Youth Futures Summit bringing together over 1000 participants in a week-long virtual event to discuss some of the big issues currently facing young people. The NYCA Inquiry’s interim findings report, What Future?,and a discussion paper proposing a Youth Futures Guarantee were released during the Summit.

The Youth Futures Guarantee lays out a framework of reforms and initiatives that will support young people to meet the challenges of the future, but also benefit Australian businesses and the wider Australian community. The Guarantee’s nine policy pillars reflect the priority concerns brought to the attention of Commissioners at public hearings, in community consultations, in submissions, and during the Youth Futures Summit. The final papers for the current NYCA Inquiry will be progressively released between late 2021 and early 2022, prior to the 2022 Federal election.

 

The NYCA as a change strategy

 

The first National Youth Commission Australia did not start out with a clear theoretical understanding of what kind of beast it was. That became clearer though. The NYCA model is a unique collective process whereby young people and community stakeholders, educators, and employers bring forward detailed solutions to challenging national issues. The organic authority of the NYCA and its potential for impact rests with the active coalitions, its activities and Australians, especially young people activated by the NYCA process to advocate for change. Though independent, the NYCA inquiry appropriated the ‘authority’ of an official inquiry, operating much like an official inquiry by adopting the same standards of rigour.

In the policy literature, the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) model advanced by Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith has gained ground as a credible and realistic theory of policy formation that is up to coping with complexity and the twists and turns of a real policy process. The ACF model helps to explain why the NYCA model provides an effective way of achieving systemic change or a whole agenda of initiatives/ reforms.

The NYCA model actively creates a multi- partisan and cross-sectoral broad coalition around the strategic foci of the NYCA – in 2008, youth homelessness; and in 2020-21, education, youth employment, and associated transition issues. In terms of the second NYCA, over 120 formally collaborating partner organisations from the community sector, peak bodies, trade unions, and employer groups as well as universities joined. The media plays a crucial role in various policy spaces; if issues are aired in the media, public interest can be stirred, and politicians are moved to respond. The NYCA has the means to actively create a constant stream of media on the issues, and as the first NYCA on youth homelessness showed, this builds up a pressure for action to be taken by government on a social problem.

A third element of the ACF is the important role of research and evidence produced by experts in changing the policy beliefs of key actors/stakeholders. Successful policy advocacy, especially on difficult and complex matters takes time even when there is a political will for reform. The NYCA process is designed to facilitate engagement with governments in a sophisticated form of collective policy advocacy. The NYCA has taken the Advocacy Coalition Framework model of policy formation, and effectively turned it into a theory of practice.

 

Rebuilding the youth homelessness sector

 

In March 2019, in the absence of functioning national leadership of the youth homelessness sector, a group of youth sector activists convened the first National Youth Homelessness Conference to be held for 20 years. Like the first NYCA Inquiry there was overwhelming support for the Conference, but some resistance from a small minority. Over the two days, there were 380 Conference registrants and another 40 people who attended selected sessions by arrangement.

During the Conference, A Report Card on Youth Homelessness was issued, that in summary concluded: ‘a less than average response to youth homelessness – at best a two-star rating … developing – some progress underway … the next decade needs to be a very different story’.

Dr John Falzon presented a Conference Communique that had been developed by a steering group and represented the key messages from the Conference. The Communique appealed to all Australian politicians, who care, to support a national effort that is ‘strategic, adequately resourced and coherently national’ and a Strategy for Ending Youth Homelessness. The Communique advanced four strategic points:

  1. Early intervention to stem the flow of young people into homelessness;
  2. Rapid rehousing and a rethink of social housing for youth as well as an explicit consideration of the needs of young people in national housing and homelessness agreements;
  3. Engagement in a different approach to ‘achieve the best possible education, training and employment outcomes possible’ in the rapidly changing world of work; and
  4. Extending state care support for young people leaving care at age 18 to at least 21 years.

At the end of the Conference as delegates were beginning to head homeward, a young worker approached one of the organisers and said: “This was great! It felt like a call to arms”. She was answered: “Yes, it is!”

During 2020, the COVID Pandemic rolled over Australia and the world. Support work had to adapt; radical measures for how the health of the most vulnerable people including young people could be safeguarded were implemented; the economy and employment was hugely affected.

In 2021, some 500 people participated in the second National Youth Homeless Conference held virtually on 15-16th June. Unlike most conferences, this conference sought to set in motion a process of collective action to develop a ‘strategy to end youth homelessness’. The Conference theme of ‘ending youth homelessness’ was organised around a project to develop a Strategy to End Youth Homelessness. The proposed strategic project was the focus for Conference discussions and what needed to happen following the Conference. The Strategy to End Youth Homelessness, will not be purely the product of a particular government but will stand as a reference for the planning and implementation that various state and territory governments undertake. Nothing quite like this has been proposed before.

The National Housing and Homelessness Agreement (NHHA) identifies priority groups of which one is ‘children and young people’ and key themes of which one is ‘prevention and early intervention’; the various jurisdictions have plans and what they loosely call strategies but there is nothing that advises how to operationalise priorities and key themes. The problem with so many government frameworks and strategy documents are that when a government changes, the new government wants fresh documents or changes policy emphases for purely political reasons. The proposed Strategy Project has been designed to become an influential reference document and resource for the Commonwealth, States and Territory governments (regardless of their political party affiliations) to draw on when negotiating their plans and strategies as well as a foundation document for youth homelessness services to use in their advocacy to governments. All jurisdictions including the Commonwealth, along with leading community sector organisations, philanthropy, and the private sector are currently being approached to resource this work. While discussions about funding continue, there is growing interest in the idea of the proposed Strategy Project.

During the COVID Pandemic, a whole swag of emergency measures had to be taken, some quite radical. Despite some missteps, Australia has managed reasonably well. Will we manage the recovery as well or fall back on the ways of before? Money was found to get us through the crisis. Will money be found to support the reforms needed to successfully emerge from the crisis? In the context of homelessness, the need for a bold strategic approach, more effective interventions, creative reform, and innovation has never been more important.

In Summary

The two National Youth Homelessness Conferences and the second National Youth Commission Australia Inquiry have been instrumental in helping to reinvigorate the youth homelessness sector, which is slowly reviving and building new relationships and forms of collaboration. It is evident that coalitions and collective action, as well as social media campaigns, tend to be the newer ways that policy advocacy is advanced, rather than relying on the more traditional forms of lobbying and representation. Increasingly, young people have become more involved directly in political advocacy projects and demanded participation in decision-making processes that affect their lives. Solutions-focused advocacy is about proposing rather than simply opposing; it accepts and understands the complexity of the policy formation and politics; it seeks to work with government and with key people within government departments; it minimises public relations spin (which is way too rife in this sector) while using social media for good; it develops detailed plans with costings and options; but speaks truth to power as necessary and speaks critically as well as appreciatively about problems.

We need to be change-makers not placeholders!

Watch: Youth perspectives on a strategy to end youth homelessness

Hear from Samantha Wilson, Elvis Martin, Danni Forster, and Ryan Clark in a discussion about what a national, state and territory strategy will mean for them and their ideas for policy change. 

This article was originally published in October 2021, Volume 34, Issue 08 of Parity Magazine.

Author:

Keith Waters is the CEO of Youth Development Australia Ltd