1 In 6 Young People Have Been Homeless, Couch Surfing A Major Concern
Even the Bureau of Statistics says it's hard to measure youth homelessness.
Over the phone, Grace is matter-of-fact.
"I felt like being homeless meant I wouldn't have a future, that I wouldn't progress in life, that I wouldn't become anything good or worthwhile," she said.
Grace is 18. She was forced to leave her parents' home just after her 16th birthday due to family violence. She had nowhere to go, and became homeless. She slept on a friend's couch for three months.
"I was really lucky to only spend that long in that situation," the Tasmanian teenager told ten daily.
"I didn't have a place lined up, so I had to stay with friends and I was couch surfing. But by the end, we weren't friends anymore."
Grace's situation is sad, but sadly not uncommon among young people. Mission Australia's regular Youth Survey of 15-to 19-year-olds, released Wednesday, found one in six of the 21,000 respondents nationwide had experienced homelessness in their lives.
"We were surprised the numbers were as high as they were," Mission Australia CEO James Toomey told ten daily.
As well as rough sleepers, homelessness includes those staying in overcrowded or inappropriate accommodation, sleeping in cars, or staying on couches.
"Couch surfing is often the first and most common way young people experience homelessness," Mission Australia said in a 2015 report.
"Those young people who had a probable serious mental illness were more likely to experience couch surfing and on more occasions than those without a probable serious mental illness."
Other reports have shone a light on the often overlooked and under-reported issue of couch surfing, with the 2016 Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia Study reporting 86 percent of young homeless had couch surfed before age 18.
"The impact that has on someone's opportunity to engage with employment or education is big. Sleeping that night is what you're thinking about, not going to school," Toomey said.
Youth homelessness is difficult to quantify, with even the Australian Bureau of Statistics choosing not to report on the trend in the 2016 census due to the fact young people may be technically living at their family home or with friends, but in reality are actually homeless.
"Although youth are over-represented in the homeless population, homeless estimates for youth are likely to have been underestimated in the Census due to a usual address being reported for some homeless youth," the ABS said.
"Their homelessness is masked because their characteristics look no different to other youth who are not homeless but are simply visiting on Census night."
However, the 2011 census reported 26,000 young people were homeless, 25 percent of the overall figure, which the ABS said "underestimated" the true number.
Grace said she was grateful to be taken in by a friend's family, but that her time couch surfing strained and ultimately tarnished the friendship.
"It's hard to adapt to someone else’s house. It’s different being a guest for a night, to couch surfing. They weren't a particularly well-off family either, so you're putting a lot of stress on them," she said.
"It led to a long-term degrading of the friendship."
Grace is now living in a supported accommodation facility in Hobart, as well as studying at TAFE -- something she couldn't have dreamed of not that long ago.
"Once I had a stable home, I was able to go on with my education. It's taken me one or two years to recover mentally from being homeless. It did take a big toll on me," she said.
"I'm in a better place, I'm mentally doing well, I have my independence. When you're homeless, there isn't much you can do to better yourself because being homeless if your whole life. When you're in a home, you can focus on other things in your life."
The Mission Australia report found a strong link between homelessness and mental illness:
While homelessness can be isolating, destabilising and traumatic for anyone experiencing it, its effects on children and young people whose development is not yet complete can be particularly devastating and long lasting.
"Homeless young people have been found to have much poorer physical and mental health than others their age. They have a notably higher incidence of reported self-injury and attempted suicide. They also have a greater likelihood of leaving school early, along with significantly higher unemployment rates than their peers," the report found.
Those who experienced homelessness as young people are also generally more likely to find themselves homeless later in life. Toomey said while youth homelessness and couch surfing was often not as visible as rough sleeping, it was important to focus on solutions to the problems early before they create life-long problems.
"It's important to focus on people sleeping on the street but if we’re not tackling people living in crowded accommodation or crowd surfing, we’re only addressing a fraction of the problem," he said.
"If we don't intervene in a way that prevents people becoming homeless as young people, they are more likely to become homeless as adults," he said.
Mission Australia's 2018 youth survey is currently open. See their website for more information.