Neither here nor there: refugee youth facing a new kind of homelessness
Old men sleeping rough dominate the public perception of homelessness. But many young people from refugee backgrounds are sleeping in overcrowded accommodation, in cars, or on the floor of a restaurant kitchen. They may have a roof, but they certainly don’t have a home.
A study of young homeless refugees has found many go through a period of homelessness because of the lack of appropriate resettlement services.
Youth work academic and senior lecturer at ACU Dr Jen Couch followed 24 refugee young people over five years. Impact caught up with Dr Couch to discuss this hidden problem.
How does this homelessness begin?
“Family breakdown is a well-documented pathway into homelessness for all young people. But for young refugees there are specific circumstances that complicate family relationships and cause tension.
The young people I followed talked about living in severely overcrowded housing, moving constantly and often being expected to help other family members negotiate a new language, culture and systems. This required them to step up into ‘adult’ roles.
One young man 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 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.’”
How big is the problem?
“Research reveals that in Australia, one in four young people are from a refugee or migrant background. And refugee young people are a six to 10 times more likely to be at risk of homelessness.
Young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds make up an important proportion of the youth population in Australia and are a diverse group with varying needs and circumstances. Unfortunately, this is the only longitudinal study to document these young people's lives. Accurate information on the extent and nature of homelessness affecting young people from a refugee background remains glaringly absent. Homelessness among refugee young people remains a profoundly under recognised phenomenon.”
What was the experience of the young people you followed?
“Over five years 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.
Young women revealed a fear of sleeping rough and this led to several staying in inappropriate and exploitative environments because no suitable housing options were available to them. They described unromantic and unwanted relationships, often with men older than them, that they entered because of a lack of free choice and as a last resort.
One young woman who had been homeless for three years said, ‘With him at least I had somewhere to sleep. I was alone here, because I hadn’t been in Australia long and I had no idea where I could go. Where was I to go? I had no home.’”
What is the effect of this homelessness?
“Feeling a sense of belonging and connectedness to social and cultural life in Australia was a challenge for many young people in the study. The young people taking part felt ‘in-between’, not only in terms of their accommodation, but also in Australia more generally. Young people referred to this as a debilitating and sometimes emotionally crippling experience, where they felt unsafe and often yearned for ‘home’. They would talk about ‘back home’, ‘when I was home’ and ‘my country’ often with significant emotion.
One young man shared: ‘People ask me now ‘Where are you from?’ and I say I am an Australian Afghani. So, in that way I identify with being an Australian. But I don't feel like I belong here. To me, I will always belong in the village eating dried apricots with my grandmother. The apricots are not the same here. Sometimes I go in to the Turkish shop just to smell them, but they are not the same.’”
They also described the feeling of being locked out of the workforce and denied meaningful opportunities to contribute to the community and build a sense of pride and membership as active citizens. They all felt a lack of opportunity in achieving the Australian dream of home ownership, tertiary education and employment. They felt left behind, forgotten and under attack. They lacked trust in institutions and services; they felt forgotten and sometimes deceived.
Insecure housing is one of the most significant predictors of mental health problems among refugees.”
How did they find help?
“They don’t always. They don’t see themselves as homeless 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.
But there is good news – 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.
One young Liberian woman said: ‘I met a Liberian on the train. She said, ‘Call me if you need anything.’ The first thing I said was, ‘I don't know you and I hope one day I can give you something back, but right now I need some money for food.’ She came that day with three bags of food: milk, cheese, meat and cereal. She helped me so much and without her I would still have nowhere to live.’
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.
Late last year we had a lunch and I invited all the research participants along. So many of them were now doing so well. Some had young babies, were working and at uni. While there have been some really sad moments – one young person was murdered, one took their own life and one is in prison – seeing the resilience these young people have and the ways they are giving back and building lives in Australia was really wonderful.”
How can we as individuals help fix this problem?
“I am not sure as individuals we can fix this problem, as many of the reasons for homelessness are structural. However, it is crucial that as a community we assist in helping refugee communities feel as though they belong. We should support refugee community-led initiatives and counter the anti-refugee narrative that is prevailing in Australia now.”
What would you like the government to do in terms of policy and programs?
“Shortage of housing is the fundamental barrier to accessing accommodation for all homeless young people. However, invoking it as the reason why young people of refugee and migrant backgrounds are disadvantaged in their search for a home is a short-cut – and, to an extent, an excuse. The barriers they experience are not just structural, and enough housing stock would not in itself be the panacea for these young people. While operating in this restricted housing situation, improvements can be made within the system to ensure these young people have equal access to the housing that is currently available.
The way forward involves a combination of early intervention, workforce development, increased collaboration between agencies, and advocacy with Commonwealth and state governments. Much of the effort and funding currently dedicated to addressing young people’s homelessness focuses on crisis responses. Refugee and migrant young people’s risk of homelessness could be greatly decreased through improved collaboration between the settlement, youth and housing sectors from the time of settlement, leading to a continuum of service delivery that is currently lacking. Relationships between the housing and homelessness service sector, the multicultural sector and landlords and real estate agents need to be strengthened to improve refugee and migrant young people’s access to the private rental market.
Newly arrived young people deserve a holistic response that considers the complex issues they are working through – housing is an essential part of the equation, but not the only one. They may require more intensive support on the path to independence than other young people, particularly around: developing independent living skills; navigating service and support systems; access to education, employment, and income; and improved family relationships. There needs to be individualised support that sees the whole picture of the young person’s life and continues after accommodation has been found.
Additionally, we must provide more support to refugee-initiated community groups – they are the ones who most often respond to this problem.”
Dr Jen Couch is a senior lecturer in youth work and international development at ACU. She has worked with, and on behalf of, young people and communities in the areas of refugee settlement, displacement, homelessness, rights and participation, and capacity building and has published widely in the area of young people and marginalisation.