By Greg Joffe and Peter Valpiani
“It sucks to be homeless, but that’s the choice people have made, so they have to live with it.”
Sentiments like this are common – and completely wrong. The idea that homelessness is a choice is an old myth that can have a damaging impact on people’s empathy and can give society a free pass from taking action on the problem.
The reality is that right now in Sydney there are 16,000 people aged under 24 who are homeless, and around 30 per cent of those are aged under 12. The idea that a young person could “choose” to be homeless defies reason. The only circumstance in which they would have made this “choice” is if the other options are even worse.
We need to understand what being homeless means. It could mean couch-surfing with friends or family, sleeping in severely crowded accommodation, staying in boarding houses, or rough sleeping on the streets.
Recently the End Street Sleeping Collaboration (ESSC), a collaboration to reduce homelessness in NSW, partnered with us at Nous Group, a management consultancy, to better understand the data on homelessness among young people in NSW. Our objective was to draw out insights about youth homelessness, and to explore programs to reduce youth homelessness.
First, some key facts:
Given this damning evidence, there is both a moral and an economic case for addressing youth homelessness.
The moral case centres on the fact that young people do not choose to be homeless but will bear the consequences for the rest of their lives. These young people will face discrimination and trauma that will severely hinder their chance of living in a stable household.
The core mental and emotional development of an individual occurs while they are young. Young people experiencing homelessness are heavily disadvantaged as they deal with the severity and trauma of their situation, which is likely to negatively impact their cognitive and emotional development.
Young people who experience homelessness are more likely to suffer from other harms throughout their lives, from domestic violence to unemployment, substance abuse, mental illness and lower levels of education. For children experiencing homelessness, consistent school attendance becomes a major challenge, posing risks to their development that last a lifetime. Experiencing homelessness while young also has a strong correlation with experiencing homelessness later in their life.
As for the economic case, research has shown that it costs government agencies approximately $20,300 each year for each person aged 12-24 experiencing homelessness, much of it in the form of police and justice services, health services and specialist homelessness services. In NSW, the annual total is over $200 million.
These same young people are likely to experience homelessness again in the future, so costs to government agencies will extend over their lifetime. A University of New South Wales study calculated that housing, health, community services and criminal justice costs amounted to $1 million to $5 million over the life course of a single person experiencing homelessness.
So what do we do about it? Although there is no single perfect solution, a range of programs have been shown to work. The interventions require investment, with these upfront costs offset by the lifetime savings if the young person can then obtain an education, a job and a more stable life.
Many jurisdictions use a Housing First approach. This approach, originally developed in New York, is based on the proven logic that a person who is in stable housing is better placed to benefit from other services, than someone who is receiving services while still homeless. Putting a young person into stable housing can also save money. For instance, the Housing First program in Finland achieved cost savings of up to 15,000 euros per annum per person.
Combatting homelessness is challenging but not impossible if governments step up to the task. And each of us should be seeking to put the issue on the public agenda, as well as helping where we can with donations and volunteering.
But before we do any of that, we need to be clear with ourselves and people around us: young people do not choose to be homeless – unless the alternatives are even worse.
The full report, “Youth Homelessness Info Paper”, is available online.
Greg Joffe is a Principal at Nous Group. He is a director of My Foundations Youth Housing and an adviser on data to the End Street Sleeping Collaboration. Peter Valpiani in the CEO of the End Street Sleeping Collaboration.
Prepared with input from Sid Prasad and Roshan Padisetti (Nous Group), and Alex Cooper and Jeremy Harris (End Street Sleeping Coalition).
Published on 6 February 2023.
 P Flatau et al., The Cost of Youth Homelessness in Australia, p. 20, ARC Linkage, 2016
 E Baldry et al., Lifecourse institutional costs of homelessness for vulnerable groups, p. 6, University of New South Wales, 2012