Layla was only in year 8 when she found herself on the streets.
- Youth homelessness is on the rise in Tasmania
- Support groups say there is a big disparity between the Youth Allowance and rental prices
- There are calls to increase access to social housing for young people
After family conflict, she spent four months homeless, couch surfing, going to shelters and even sleeping rough.
Now, at 16, she understands more than most about what lies behind a statistic.
“When I was on the streets, I think I went to school three times the whole time I was out there. I didn’t have a social life … I didn’t know what was going to happen,” she said.
“Towards the end of it, I was at a house that wasn’t the nicest of houses, but I had a roof over my head most nights,” she said.
It was an incident she does not want to detail that prompted her to seek a different path.
“One thing opened up my eyes and I didn’t want to stay out there, so I packed up my crap and just went home.”
Layla then stayed with her sister and began rebuilding her life.
Homelessness on the rise
The latest Census data on homelessness will not be released until next year, but support groups say it is already apparent the issue has worsened over the past five years.
A recent Mission Australia survey found that, during the COVID pandemic, more than one in 30 young Tasmanians experienced homelessness for the first time in their lives.
Pattie Chugg from Shelter Tasmania said 6,600 people a year accessed housing services and that number was increasing all the time.
“Tasmania has the highest proportion of people [who] are homeless because they haven’t got affordable rental, and for young people that’s exacerbated very much for them when they are on lower incomes, part-time [or] casual wages or Youth Allowance,” Ms Chugg said.
“It’s a really simple equation in some ways. We’ve got a lot of people on low incomes. We’ve got rents that are rising and then those two things come together. It is the people with the least amount of resources [who] are the ones missing out the most.
“We’ve got this perfect storm really of not enough affordable housing to house people in Tasmania.”
Middle group emerging
Advocacy group Youth Network of Tasmania is concerned there is an emerging group of young people who are homeless because they do not qualify for the public housing waiting list.
“We are seeing young people [who] are not necessarily eligible for social housing, and can’t afford to enter the rental market. So, what do we do for those individuals?” Youth Network chief executive Tanya Hunt asked.
“They need to be allocated more social housing in my view. They need to be prioritized, to reduce homelessness in our community.
“We know that there is high youth unemployment in Tasmania. We know that underemployment is a significant issue. [There’s] transport disadvantage, low incomes — there’s a range of challenges that contribute to housing insecurity and homelessness for young Tasmanians.”
Ms Hunt said the COVID-19 pandemic had also taken a toll.
“Young people experienced unprecedented job losses 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 over-represented in the homeless population.
“The problem in Tasmania is often hidden, with young people couch surfing with friends and family, sleeping in their cars and sleeping rough.”
Both Shelter Tasmania and Youth Network say that increasing the Youth Allowance is key to keeping young people off the streets.
“Very few people know how little Youth Allowance is: It’s only $500 a fortnight,” Ms Chugg said.
“Why is Youth Allowance so low and less than an adult’s income on unemployment and other benefits when all their other costs are the same?”
State government urged to do more
Hobart City Councilor Jax Fox was behind a move to cap new, short-stay accommodation in an effort to increase rental stock, a measure that is now before the Planning Commission.
In the past, they have also couch surfed and lived in tents, but they say it was “very much on the light end” of homelessness.
“When I was younger my family would just kind of camp, we moved around a lot. It was very socially isolating,” Cr Fox said.
“Housing is the first thing that you need to survive. If you don’t know somebody who is going through this or has gone through this, you are deliberately not looking, because it’s everywhere.”
The Tasmanian government has promised to build 10,000 homes in the next 10 years but Cr Fox says even that is not sufficient.
“There are 4,000 families — not individuals, families — on the [waiting] list now. So, if we are going to build houses just for them without the list growing, it is going to take four or five years for the current demand to be met.”
Cr Fox wants more money for emergency housing, access to hotels and a vacancy tax.
“Aside from building more housing, we need a vacancy tax. There are heaps of empty houses around Hobart,” Cr Fox said.
“If people can sit on houses as investments and incomes when others are starving on the streets, how detached from reality do you have to be to think that’s an OK thing to do?
“We should ban short-stay accommodation altogether.”
In a statement, Deputy Premier Michael Ferguson said the government “would not impose a vacant housing tax on people who, for whatever reason, are not receiving rental income on their home”.
“While there is no silver bullet, the best way to alleviate these pressures is to build more houses and give more options to get people into home ownership, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Minister for State Development, Construction and Housing Guy Barnett said the government was “working hard to reduce homelessness.”
“Our $1.5 billion plan to build 10,000 social and affordable homes in 10 years is very ambitious and we are working closely with the community housing sector and broader building and construction industry to deliver this,” he said.
He said the plan included spaces for youth in our Youth2Independence (Y2I) facilities across the state, and that it had delivered 342 homes and 59 lots of land over the past year.
The government has committed over $5 million to expand the Y2I program, which is a foyer-style facility that provides accommodation specifically for young people aged 16-24.
“Tasmania has more supported accommodation ‘foyer’ facilities for youth than anywhere else in Australia, with three current facilities in Launceston, Devonport and Hobart and two new facilities in Hobart and Burnie being developed,” Mr Barnett said.
Data shows that once a young person experiences homelessness, they are more likely to do so again in later life.
And being homeless brings with it complications that are hard to overcome.
Understanding much of that, Layla is now looking out for others in the same predicament.
“We’ve got a friend down at the supermarket who is homeless and we help him out every time we go down there, every day he is there,” Layla said.
“He lives up in a tent in South Hobart and he’s 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.”
Ms Chugg has urged young people to seek out support services by contacting Housing Connect.
“It’s important to make contact through school, support services. There is help there and it’s important our youngest citizens are looked after.”