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Homelessness – bringing children into the conversation

Kay Phiri is a Children’s Specialist at a Salvation Army crisis accommodation centre in Brisbane.

More than 37 per cent of those experiencing homelessness in Australia at the time of the 2021 Census were aged 24 or younger. Over 14 per cent of these young people were aged 12 or less.

For children and young adults, homelessness brings unique challenges. And for their parents, the cost is increased worry and stress.

Joelene, a Tasmanian mother of six, has been experiencing homelessness since November 2021, when she was told to leave her home on request by Child Protective Services after facing domestic violence. Apart from her eldest son, all her children, aged 24, 23, 20, 10, eight and two, are also living in crisis accommodation or couch-surfing.

Joelene said since all of her children have additional needs, including autism and ADHD, it is especially difficult not having their own space.

“You try to make them as comfortable as you can,” she said. “But I would say living in a shelter with children and being homeless, it’s hard. It's as hard on the children [as it is on] the parents.”

Family Supported Accommodation North Brisbane Children’s Specialist Kay Phiri said behavioural changes in children were often an initial sign that they were struggling to cope with the stress of sleeping rough. She said while the team at the centre previously focused on questioning parents about their children’s wellbeing, they had begun a new, more direct focus on the children called Child Inclusive Practice. This involved talking directly to minors about their experience of homelessness.

“Sometimes the child is misbehaving,” Kay said. “Then when you sit down and listen to the child, they’ve moved four times [in a year]. So, you start asking simple things like, ‘Who’s your friend?’ And they’ll say, oh, I don’t have a friend in [my new] school.”

Kay said some children also had to leave family members, including beloved grandparents, behind depending on the situation. She said the team was focused on getting the children into team sports to build friendships more rapidly in a new area.

“Sometimes we have parents coming from [domestic violence], and literally they will only have the clothes on their back,” she said. “That’s all they have. They’ve got nothing, and the children have left their toys, their friends [and relatives].”

Kay said while younger toddlers and pre-school-aged children tended not to notice many changes to their living situation provided they still felt loved and cared for, older children struggled more as they noticed their parents were unable to afford the same things as their friends’ parents. She said being without a home and unable to invite friends over was also disheartening for children.

“When they are much younger, I think parents are more able to work things around without a lot of resistance from the children,” she said.

Kay said she finds children are remarkably perceptive and able to find solutions to the problems they face from homelessness.

“They will tell me the problem, and they will tell me the solution, and most of the time it’s a good solution because they brought it up,” she said. “When we follow it, it works.”


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