What it’s like being a homeless refugee in Australia

Young refugees are at a high risk of homelessness (Bigstock)

One of the biggest challenges young people of refugee backgrounds face in Australia is finding safe, affordable and appropriate housing, writes Australian Catholic University’s Jen Couch. Source: SBS News.

Yet this is central to social inclusion and to a young person’s ability to settle successfully in their new country.

In the first longitudinal study of the lives of young homeless refugees I looked at 25 such people in Melbourne. They shared with me their experiences of being homeless and their pathway out of it over a five-year period. For a majority of them, their homelessness ended through a connection made by a member of their own cultural community.

Young refugees are at high risk of homelessness – “at least six to 10 times higher” than for Australian-born young people, a 2002 study estimated. Insecure housing is, in turn, one of the most significant predictors of mental health problems among refugees.

Family breakdown is a well-documented pathway into homelessness for all young people.

But for young refugees there are specific circumstances that complicate family relationships and cause tension.

Participants talked about living in severely overcrowded housing, moving constantly and often being expected to help other family members negotiate a new language, culture and systems. This required them to step up into “adult” roles.

Once young people left home, their options were limited. Most did not know about homelessness services. Many did not even identify as being homeless – they saw homeless people as old, male and rough sleepers.

Very few tried to access youth refuges and shelters. Those who did said they were afraid and did not feel comfortable.

Private rental was unattainable for nearly all, due to cost, discrimination and a lack of rental history. Consequently, all young people found couch surfing was their only housing option.

Young women reported a fear of sleeping rough. This led to several staying in inappropriate and exploitative environments.

By the time the study ended in 2017, 23 of the 25 people had found a way out of homelessness. But one young person had taken their own life. Another was in jail.

Jen Couch is a senior lecturer at Australian Catholic University.


‘Five of us slept in a car’: What it’s like being a homeless refugee in Australia (SBS News)

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