Homeless youth. Elvert Barnes / Flickr
Homelessness is a growing scourge in prosperous countries like Australia, and a political football for parties to kick around without actually coming to grips with the causes. The media follow left-wing politicians around to families in horrible caravan parks or even trying to live out of car, and join them in challenging conservative governments to increase welfare benefits and build more social housing. But how did these people came to be homeless when many others on the same income, in the same cities, are not?
At last, Australia has an answer to that question: family breakdown.
A team of researchers from Melbourne University studied a group of nearly 1700 people over a two-and-a-half year period who were either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless (because of health, employment or family issues, and need for assistance, for example) in a study called Journeys Home.
Of those who experienced homelessness, 62 percent said family breakdown or conflict was the main reason for becoming homeless for the first time.
Writing in The Conversation last week Dr Julie Moschion, one of the research team, said the high frequency of homelessness and parental separation in the sample suggests a causal relationship between the two.
It makes sense, doesn’t it. Two places to live in cost more than one, rents are sky-high, and a family in the process of breaking up is unlikely to increase its income. If there are savings they will be quickly exhausted. Most likely the custodial parent will need a benefit, and even then she will find it difficult to make ends meet. Friends and extended family may not be secure enough themselves to offer a roof.
But parental separation can make people homeless in an even sadder way. As Dr Moschion notes, “Parental separations can also create conflict between parents and children. This may drive children out of their parent’s home and potentially into homelessness in subsequent years.”
Perhaps the plural, “separations”, is significant here, since many children experience further breakups as their custodial parent enters new, cohabiting relationships.
The effect of parental separation on children seems the most depressing finding of the study, and it hits boys hardest:
For boys, their risk of becoming homeless by age 30 increases by ten to 15 percentage points. This is irrespective of their age when the separation occurs.
For girls, only parental separation before the age of 12 matters. This increases their likelihood of being homeless before 30 by 15-20 percentage points.
And they are hit harder still, says Moschion, when the parents were formally married.
Perhaps this is because of a more protracted process of separation and more conflict between parents who were initially very committed and are reluctant to break up the family. The loss of one parent from the home under those circumstances could make a child more bitter and less able to cope with life. Again, this is more likely for boys, who are more often separated from their father.
(On the other hand, we know that married couple families are less likely to break down than those based on cohabitation.)
These are robust findings and they point clearly to the kind of social policy needed to prevent homelessness. Governments that want to solve this problem should be concentrating social support on the family – that is, parents trying to raise their own children. The Australian government seems to have done just the opposite lately, freezing family tax benefits, for example, in order to help pay for its childcare programme.
Housing affordability is certainly an area where governments can and perhaps should intervene. Employment is another. High rents and unemployment both increase stress on families. But if the focus of public policy is on keeping the family intact there will be less homelessness and individual misery all round, less demand for other costly services, and other policies will find their proper balance.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.