The following are excerpts from an address to the Homelessness SA forum on the impact of homelessness on children, 31 March 2006.
There’s no point in her being at school, it’s not like you can sit her down at night and read her books, with this stuff going on around us.
homeless family in a private hotel
Children come into care to protect them from harm. Their families cannot care for them for a variety of reasons. This ranges from parents who cannot get enough support to care for a child with profound disabilities to parents who seriously and criminally abuse their children. The contributing factors for Aboriginal children are steeped in their families’ history of separation and alienation.
It is of no surprise that the factors that place families under stress and lead to the separation of children from their care are similar to the factors that contribute to homelessness. These are domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, intellectual disability, low incomes, transience and poor family supports, among others. There is significant overlap between homelessness and children being in care.
You’re just a totally isolated unit as a family, friendship just doesn’t come into it. Even the kids, they’re like ships in the night, you know? None of us have any relationships, it’s really weird.
The impact of homelessness on children is huge but has largely been overlooked. In the past we have treated the family as a homogenous unit with the parents representing and protecting the interests of the children. It is only since the 1980s with growth in the study of children, and the consequent ‘discovery’ that they were social actors, and the commitment to children’s rights that we have started to consider the needs of children as linked to but also distinct from the family as a whole.
From a child’s perspective, homelessness may look like this: losing pets, leaving treasures behind, being in strange and threatening environments, being separated from friends and sometimes siblings, changing or missing school, falling behind, insufficient food, persistent illness with no treatment and adults distracted all the time.
It happened lots. I just got used to it. They’d just come and pick us up and take us when mum was going psycho.
In their own words, Create June 2004
Children in care who are often changing placement are homeless but have not been considered as such. It is not our notion of what homelessness is. But the definition of ‘secondary’ homelessness covers such circumstances – constantly moving between relatives or friends because of no home of their own.
We do know that young people who are in state care use homelessness services. In South Australia at 30 June 2005 there were 190 young people on care and protection orders and in independent living arrangements such as private board, renting on their own, engaged in a program of learning to live independently and living with their partner and children. It has been estimated but not confirmed that 100 of these young people drift in and out of homelessness services. We don’t have accurate data here.
There are many things we still don’t know. We don’t know how many families were homeless when the children were removed. We don’t know how many children have been separated from their parents because residential services couldn’t accommodate children. We don’t know how well our homelessness services meet the needs of children or how safe children are while there. We don’t know how many homeless people are care leavers but we suspect it is a significant number. We don’t know how, or if, homelessness services should be integrated with alternative care.
We do know though that child safety starts with awareness of children and empowerment of children. So we can proceed without perfect knowledge to improve our approach to children in planning and providing homelessness services.