Calls for more social housing and benefits for homeless youth in Tasmania

Layla was only in year 8 when she ended up on the street.

After a family conflict, she spent four months homeless surfing the couch, going to shelters and even sleeping rough.

Now, at age 16, she understands more than most about what lies behind a statistic.

“When I was on the street, I think I went to school three times the entire time I was there. I didn’t have a social life… I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said.

“By the end of it, I found myself in a house that wasn’t the prettiest, but most nights I had a roof over my head,” she said.

It was an incident that she does not want to describe in detail and that prompted her to look for another path.

“One thing opened my eyes and I didn’t want to stay there, so I packed my shit and just went home.”

Layla then stayed with her sister and started rebuilding her life.

Homelessness is on the rise

The latest Census data on homelessness won’t be released until next year, but support groups say it’s already clear that the problem has worsened over the past five years.

Shelter Tasmania’s Pattie Chugg says the state has the highest homeless rate.(ABC News: Scott Ross)

A recent survey by Mission Australia found that during the COVID pandemic, more than one in 30 young Tasmanians became homeless for the first time in their lives.

Shelter Tasmania’s Pattie Chugg said 6,600 people a year gained access to housing services and that number was constantly increasing.

“Tasmania has the highest percentage of people [who] are homeless because they do not have affordable rent, and for young people this is made worse for them when they have a lower income, part time [or] casual wages or youth allowance,” said Ms. Chugg.

“It’s a very simple equation in some ways. We have a lot of low-income people. We have rents that go up and then those two things come together. It’s the people with the least resources [who] are the ones that miss the most.

“We have this perfect storm of not enough affordable housing to accommodate people in Tasmania.”

Middle group on the rise

Tania Hunt smiles at the camera.
Tania Hunt of the Youth Network of Tasmania has called for more social housing for young people.(ABC news: Maren Preuss)

Advocacy group Youth Network of Tasmania is concerned that there is an emerging group of young people who are homeless because they do not qualify for the public housing waiting list.

“We’re seeing young people[who]don’t necessarily qualify for social housing, and can’t afford to enter the rental market. So, what do we do for those individuals?” asked Tanya Hunt, Youth Network CEO.

“They should be given more social housing in my opinion. They should be prioritized to reduce homelessness in our community.

“We know that there is high youth unemployment in Tasmania. We know that underemployment is a major problem. [There’s] transport disadvantage, low incomes – there is a range of challenges contributing to housing insecurity and homelessness for young Tasmanians.”

Ms Hunt said the COVID-19 pandemic has also taken its toll.

“Young people faced unprecedented job loss and a range of other challenges that resulted in housing insecurity and homelessness.”

She said it was difficult to know the exact number, but young people were overrepresented in the homeless population.

“The problem in Tasmania is often hidden, with young people surfing the couch with friends and family, sleeping in their cars and sleeping rough.”

Both Shelter Tasmania and Youth Network say increasing the youth allowance is key to keeping young people off the streets.

“Few people know how little the youth allowance is: It’s only $500 a fortnight,” said Ms. Chugg.

“Why is the youth allowance so low and less than an adult’s income in unemployment benefits and other benefits when all their other costs are the same?”

Homelessness among young people.  Good generic.
Support groups say there is a growing gap between government payments to young people and rents.(ABC news)

State government urged to do more

Hobart City Councilor Jax Fox was behind a decision to hedge new short-term housing in a bid to increase the rental stock, a move now before the Planning Committee.

In the past they have also surfed on the couch and lived in tents, but they say it was “very on the light side” of homelessness.

“When I was younger my family just kind of went camping, we moved a lot. It was very socially isolated,” Cr Fox said.

Jax Fox looks away from the camera.
Hobart City Councilor Jax Fox has experience with couchsurfing and living in tents.(ABC news: Maren Preuss)

“Housing is the first thing you need to survive.

“If you don’t know someone who has experienced this, or has experienced this, then deliberately don’t look, because it’s everywhere.”

The Tasmanian government has promised to build 10,000 houses over the next 10 years, but Cr Fox says even that is not enough.

“There are 4,000 families – not individuals, families – on the… [waiting] list now. So if we start building houses just for them without the list growing, it will take four or five years to meet the current demand.”

Cr Fox wants more money for emergency housing, access to hotels and a vacancy tax.

“Aside from building more homes, we need a vacancy tax. There are a huge amount of empty houses near Hobart,” said Cr Fox.

“If people can sit on houses as investments and income while others on the street are starving, how disconnected from reality do you have to be to think that’s okay to do?

“We should ban short-stay accommodation altogether.”

Evidence shows that once a young person is homeless, they are more likely to do so later in life.

Two women are standing in a park.
Layla, pictured with her rescuer Heidi, is no longer homeless and tries to help others who are.(ABC news: Maren Preuss)

And being homeless brings complications that are difficult to overcome.

Layla understands a lot about that and now looks out for others who are in the same predicament.

“We have a friend at the supermarket who is homeless and we help him every time we are there. He is there every day,” Layla said.

“Every day he is there and he lives in a tent in South Hobart and he is freezing at the moment.

“We bought him some tuna and stuff last night and he can’t even get Centrelink because he doesn’t have a home address. It’s a bit sad.”

Blankets and sheets under a bridge in northern Tasmania.
Unemployment and a delay in transport are some of the factors that play a role in homelessness among young people.(ABC News: April McLennan)

Pattie Chugg has urged young people to seek support services by contacting Housing Connect.

“It’s important to connect through school, support services. There’s help there and it’s important that our youngest citizens are taken care of.”

Prime Minister Jeremy Rockliff said his government’s plan for 10,000 affordable homes over the next 10 years is “a number that is undoubtedly challenging, but we will get there”.

He said the government “recognizes the pressures of homelessness” [and we are] behind the reasons for homelessness, mental health pressures, people’s health and well-being.”

Mr Rockliff said the government would “engage with key stakeholders such as the Tasmanian Council of Social Services and other advocates to ensure we have the right policy settings in place and that investments are being targeted in the right areas.”

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