Three decades ago, after a two-year national inquiry, the Human Rights Commission advised the federal government that Australia had nearly 25,000 homeless children and young people – some of whom were dying from neglect — while many others were living in squalid conditions, reduced to petty crime and prostitution to survive and frequently subjected to violence on the streets.
A disturbingly large number of these children were or had been wards of the state and many of them had fled families where they had been sexually, physically or emotionally abused. Many young people were suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness or serious mental health problems left untreated. The public perception was generally that these were “bad kids“ – and if they hadn’t run away from home there wouldn’t be a problem. However, the evidence clearly established that most of the “homes” they had fled from were violent, abusive or dysfunctional. Some of the children were as young as nine or 10.
Our findings and recommendations identified many factors contributing to the problems confronting these children and young people. They included family poverty and isolation; the scarcity of low-cost housing alternatives; the failure to provide any follow-up support for children who had been wards of the state; the inadequacy or complete absence of mental health facilities in rural and regional areas (where the youth suicide rate was 300 per cent higher than in our cities); and failure to implement programs for family support and early intervention and prevention strategies that could assist children at risk of becoming homeless.
The federal government responded to public pressure generated by the commission’s widely reported findings with increased supported accommodation for young people and several health initiatives and employment and training support programs. However, this funding stagnated after a few years. Several programs for early intervention and support for families where children were at risk were funded and various states also took initiatives based on our recommendations. However, many of these programs were not effectively co-ordinated and by the year 2000 the number of our homeless children had increased to almost 30,000.