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Couch surfing limbo

Couch surfing limbo

By Shorna Moore

Access to Justice Young Persons 


Shorna Moore is the guest contributor to this week's President's Blog. Shorna is the Director of Policy and Community Development at WestJustice.


Couch surfing is increasingly being recognised as a form of homelessness in Australia. It is a particularly complex issue for young people aged under 18, and little is known about the legal challenges these young people face. Even less is known about the experiences and challenges of the ‘couch providers’ – individuals and families who provide a place to stay for these young people.

Shorna Moore from WestJustice sought to fill this gap in knowledge, by considering the experiences of young couch surfers and couch providers – seeking to identify the legal, policy and service gaps for these groups and provide a way forward in addressing these issues.

To this end, sixty-two case studies from the WestJustice Couch Surfing Clinic were analysed and over 30 professionals that work with young couch surfers were consulted. We believe this is the first time that the place of the couch-provider within the homelessness, family violence and out of home care sectors is being systematically examined in Australia.

Young couch surfers are falling through the gaps – not yet considered adults, but not given the same level of protection as children, these young people are forced to couch surf to avoid violence at home and family conflict.

While it was out of the scope of this project to critique the Victorian Out-of-Home Care and Child Protections systems, there were some challenges identified in protecting young people through them. The preference young people (and couch providers) had for their situations to remain ‘out of the system’ was indicative of a lack of trust in how their situations would be handled. Young couch surfers’ lack of identity as being homeless or victims of family violence was mirrored in the lack of recognition in the systems that were intended to support them.

The lack of restorative approaches to young people’s experiences of violence – which favour a less adversarial approach to dealing with the issue than that of other justice responses – limited young people’s ability to stay in the family home or report the violence they experienced. Challenges navigating the legal system to respond to this were also pronounced, including the Intervention Order process.

Independent living was rarely, if at all, an option for the young people in this study. The lack of financial resources and an inability to stay in the family home meant many young people had no choice but to couch surf. Financial support is incredibly limited - the higher levels of youth unemployment in Victoria are well known, and it is a particularly acute problem in the western region. For unemployed youth experiencing homelessness, the only form of income support available is Youth Allowance, which is set at such a level to make independent living impossible. The conditions on access to Youth Allowance and the Family Tax Benefit could also mean many young people had no income support at all.

Staying engaged in schooling was a challenge for these young people in the study, as they battled constant illness, poor mental health, and lacked the financial and other resources to stay engaged in their education. They also experienced discrimination at school because of their circumstances.

Public transport, infringements, and other debts (including those owed to Centrelink) were another significant problem that further entrenched couch surfers levels of vulnerability. Already financially and otherwise disadvantaged because of their housing situation, fines continued to accumulate, with young people having no real capacity to pay for them.

Having limited legal rights to leases and property limited the access to the few assets that young people did have – with examples given of young people not being able to retrieve their school books, mobile phones (which were essential for any kind of social capital), and being asked to leave by the couch providers without notice. This left young couch surfers even more financially vulnerable and unable to participate in education or employment.

Conversely, some young people reported being exploited by couch providers.

It was clear for both groups, there was a lack of legal and policy protections because of the nature of their experience. Services are not designed for these groups.

The final report ‘Couch Surfing Limbo’ will be launched on 24 November 2017 by Liana Buchanan, Commissioner for Children and Young People. To find out more information about the report and launch, contact WestJustice.

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