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Leaving Home: How and why young refugee young people are experiencing homelessness

Fleeing war and persecution to an unknown land on the other side of the world is daunting and strenuous. The resettlement process for refugees in Australia is full of uncertainty and protruding barriers. Gaining access to safe, adequate housing is the first step (Hiebert et al, 2005). It is a springboard for resettlement: once you have adequate, long-term housing, other aspects of resettlement such as accessing education and gaining employment become easier.

But there are barriers. Refugees attempting to access housing face financial instability, racial discrimination and a lack of access to housing, youth, health and education services. The stigma that refugees carry with them makes it harder for them to get on their feet and start building their new life. This paper will: explore these obstacles to adequate housing; examine why refugees experience homelessness; the challenges that young refugees face when experiencing homelessness; and the changes in both policy and service provision that need to be implemented in order prevent people from refugee background experiencing homelessness.

Barriers to Adequate Housing

The homeless experience of the refugee population is often hidden. They’re not sleeping on city streets or in homeless shelters. In contrast, they’re on their neighbours couches or behind restaurants. Most of the refugees who experience homelessness are young refugee people (Couch, 2011). The majority come to Australia as part of a family group, who have few or little financial resources available to them (Refugee Council of Australia, 2013). Income is a huge hurdle to overcome in gaining adequate housing. A lack of rental history and the unrealistic financial needs for refugee families in securing a private rental property, leave little options available for newly arrived families. Government financial assistance and the savings that families bring them are not sufficient to maintain and gain adequate housing. These difficulties are compounded by the difficulties of many refugees in understanding English. The language barrier leads to difficulties for refugees in understanding how rules and systems work (Hirbert et al 2005). There is confusion about who pays for what and how to access services. Dr Jen Couch of the Australian Catholic University, who has undertaken extensive research in the relationship between refugee young people and homelessness, confirmed that young refugees have serious difficulties learning English in Australia. The 500 hours of language classes provided through the Department of Education and training’s Adult Migrant English Program on arrival is simply not enough. If a family does attain a house, it is usually unsafe, small, and packed with too many people.

Causes of young refugees experiencing homelessness: Overcrowding

The breakdown in family relationships due to overcrowding is the main reason refugee young people find themselves experiencing homelessness (Refugee Council of Australia, 2013). A young refugee person is six times more likely to experience homeless compared to an Australian born young person (Centre for Multicultural Youth, 2017). Overcrowding is typical in many refugee families. The lack of privacy and own claim to space causes tensions to rise. People reflected on having to share a room and bed with two other people, or permanently sleep on their couch. Such close-quarters leads to tensions flaring up within the household. Cultural tensions generally rise with parents concerned that they’re children are becoming ‘too Australian’ (Couch, 2018). A participant in research undertaken by Dr Couch said they felt punished by their parents for ‘having Australian friends’ and constantly fighting with their parents over their new found rights in Australia.

Challenges and Solutions

Inadequate support on arrival

Existing resettlement policy reflects a job half-done in terms of satisfactorily resettling refugees in Australia. The waiting periods for income support are far too long.

The uncertainty with Temporary Protection Visa’s (TPVs) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEV), makes it impossible for refugees to resettle and start building their new lives. These visa’s are provided to refugees who have not received a permanent visa, before the law changed in 2014. TPV provides protection for three years, while SHEV provides protection for 5 years, alongside a requirement to work in a particular regional area. Holders on both visa’s have the right to work, get Medicare and are eligible for some Centerlink payments. Being on these visa’s aren’t permanent resettlement. There is fear that they may be forced to return home after their period of protection, and therefore the inability to plan a stable, secure life.

However, the most urgent change needed is on arrival support targeted specifically at refugee young people, separate assistance given to whole family units (Couch, 2017).

Ineffective provision of Youth and Housing Services

Youth and housing support services have been reflected in a negative light. Refugee young people frequently bemoan the difficulties involved in these services. Dr Couch has found that young refugee people feel they have no right to be accessing housing and Youth services. They found providers to be rude and disrespectful. Dr Couch has suggested co-locating housing services with other services that young refugees access. This would include youth workers accompanying young people to their first appointment with a housing service provider, allowing them to gain trust in the organisation and the worker, and reinforcing that they have a right to be there and receive this assistance. As well as this, addressing the language and cultural barriers as a necessity. Providing interpreters throughout these services is a sign of support and acknowledgement of multiculturalism, and allows people to utilise services effectively.

Exclusion from school system

Education is a tool of empowerment. It is also a right to which all people are entitled. Refugees bring different skill levels and understanding to Australia. Similarly, different countries’ education systems have varying standards. A year 9 student in Australia is not necessarily at the same level as a year 9 student in Sudan. Placing young refugees in age-based classes rather than skill-based classes makes it impossible for them to keep up and have a genuine interest in school. Refugees may have poor language skills, poor literacy in their first language and may have experienced an interruption to their education due to their experience as a refugee (Couch, 2011). A 16-year-old facing these barriers does not feel encouraged to participate in school, particularly if they are in a class of 10 year olds. One solution therefore is to make skill-based rather than age-based classes specifically for refugee youth who have been denied the right to education because of their experiences of fleeing persecution. These separate classes would be able to provide people with the support and encouragement needed to appropriately engage, without feeling embarrassed.

Despite facing all of these barriers and challenges and the years of resilience and struggles, some refugee young people have managed to find their way out of experiencing homelessness. The majority gained long term housing through a friend, or, in one case, a stranger on the train (Couch, 2011). All young refugees who did find housing, did it with the help of a third party - whether this was a friend, teacher, or youth worker. There are services that are currently doing good work for both young refugees and other Australians experiencing homelessness that you can support:

  • Launch Housing - A Melbourne-based community organisation working to end homelessness. They provide crisis accommodation while they work with people experiencing homelessness to find long-term housing. They engage in research and advocate for policy change, based on the acknowledgement that living in an unequal society causes homelessness.

  • BaptCare - The Baptcare sanctuary program provides temporary accommodation for those seeking asylum, waiting to hear on the outcome of their application of a Protection visa or Humanitarian claim, who are experiencing homelessness. They aim to provide support services to empower those who had experienced homelessness and seeing asylum in Australia.

Despite these positive outcomes, and the organisations mentioned above, there are still large gaps that need to be filled in both the areas of resettlement and the provision of services, as suggested in this paper. Simply put, young people should not be punished by the Australian people or the Australian government for fleeing persecution, in hope for a safe, fulfilling life. Young refugee people experiencing homelessness are often suffering in silence, misunderstood or patronised. Australia prides itself on giving people a fair go. It’s time we started living up to that promise.


Barker, J. Humphries, P. McArthur, M. & Thomson, L. (2012). ‘Reconnect: Working with young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.’

Centre for Multicultural Youth (2011). Finding Home in Victoria, Melbourne: Centre for Multicultural Youth.

Couch, J. (2017). ‘Neither here nor there’: Refugee young people and homelessness in Australia’, Children and Youth Services Review, 74, 1-7

Couch, J. (2011). ‘A New Way Home: Refugee Young People and Homelessness in Australia’, Journal of Social Inclusion, 2(1)

Forrest, J. & Hermes, K. (2012). ‘The Housing Resettlement Experience of Refugee Immigrants to Australia’, Journal of Refugee Studies, 26(2).

Hiebert, D. D’Addario, S. & Sherrell, K. (2005). ‘The Profile of Absolute and Relative Homelessness Among Immigrants, Refugees and Refugee Claimants in the GVRD

Refugee Council of Australia (2013) ‘Housing Issues for Refugees and Asylum seekers in Australia.’

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