Finding a place to call home

Reducing the impact of homelessness for young people through establishing a foundation for prevention, breaking down stereotypes, giving young people a voice, understanding and learning from their unique experiences, and empowering them through connecting them with appropriate services.

Dr Jess HeerdeHomelessness in young people is multifaceted and essentially refers to individuals who have no permanent fixed address or a safe place to call home.

Young people can find themselves in unstable living situations that can range from uncomfortable to distressing and dangerous which is particularly challenging as often these circumstances are out of their control.

Currently more than 15% of young people, aged between 16-25 years, experience homelessness in Australia.

Dr Jess Heerde, a Westpac Research Fellow from the Department of Paediatrics, Melbourne Medical School, has been engaged in decade long research to comprehensively understand the factors leading to and the lived experience of young people who experience homelessness.

“Homelessness is more than ‘rough sleeping’ where young people may be sleeping in a park or building or directly on the street,” Dr Heerde said.

“It includes those who are ‘couch surfing’ or sleeping in their car, and those accessing transitional housing or in crisis or temporary accommodation,” she said.

“Assisting young people experiencing homelessness requires an integrated and intersectional approach; and sometimes addressing the immediate concerns, like housing, while important, doesn’t resolve the bigger picture.”

“My research is seeking to understand how and why young people become homeless, what they go through while experiencing homelessness, and how we can support the transition from homelessness.”

Dr Heerde is examining the influence of a broad range of individual, family, peer, school and community factors, through the International Youth Development Study (IYDS), which looks at healthy and problematic behaviours in young people in Victoria (Australia) and Washington State (USA), as predictors of homelessness.

Her research has found associations between family and school factors in young people aged 13-14 years for homelessness at 25 years.

“Prevention approaches take time to show effect and it’s often difficult to obtain funding to implement these programs,” Dr Heerde said.

“Our research is showing emerging evidence on outcomes for prevention-based approaches in, for example, family environments, schooling and violence, to reduce the risk of later homelessness,” she said.

Dr Heerde also works with young people who are currently experiencing homelessness where she has found no two lived experiences for young people are the same.

“We’ve interviewed more than 60 young people who are experiencing homelessness and asked them how they got there, what is happening with them, how they interact with services and what their outlook is for the future beyond homelessness,” Dr Heerde said.

“My approach is to make the young person and their experiences the central focus, they own their own data, they are the leader, and as a researcher I have a responsibility to accurately and honestly convey their stories and ensure the information is used in a way to create positive change,” she said.

Finding a place to call home

Dr Heerde operates at the interface to empower young people and connect them with services to lessen the impact of homelessness, shorten the experience and share their stories.

“Conducting this research requires two levels of trust – from youth organisations and from the young people themselves – my research is very much about rapport building and putting the young person first in order to foreground their experiences,” Dr Heerde said.

“Some young people are very aware of services and access them, however, others have a sense of wariness which could be related to prior negative experiences,” she said.

“There may be reluctance to seek help from services resulting from shame or stigma or the need to keep constantly telling their story to access services.”

“The youth organisations I work with, however, are remarkable; and they run a lot of programs to help young people manage and connect them with the right support to address the multitude of experiences they are having.”

Dr Heerde said recognising the strength these young people possess has been one of the keys to her research success.

“They are the picture of resilience in many ways and we have a lot to learn from their experience,” Dr Heerde said.

“It’s incredibly important to breakdown negative stereotypes as there is a perception these young people are purposefully violent and deviant,” she said.

“My research has found that these behaviours are frequently out of survival and self-protection.”

“We are trying to change the mindset in society; these things are happening because young people just don’t feel safe.”

Dr Heerde has worked with a group of young people, for example, who spoke about their interactions with police while experiencing homelessness.

We are now engaging these young people alongside police and the community to breakdown these perceptions through communicating their experience with homelessness, she said.

Working across theory, prevention and practice translation in homelessness among young people is personally enriching and rewarding for Dr Heerde.

“Homelessness is not forever, and young people are not irreparably damaged,” Dr Heerde said.

“They have often been through experiences which make them incredibly strong and resilient and they have a lot to offer and want to contribute to society just like everyone else,” she said.

“I’ve had highly anxious young people at the beginning of their interview make very little eye contact, and by the end of the process shake my hand and thank me for the opportunity to be heard.”

“It’s not about going in to an interview and asking young people to give me information – my approach is I’m here and I’m listening to you.”