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Monday, 20 September 1999
Page: 9951

Mr ZAHRA (3:57 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion. I say at the outset that this is a very serious issue that we are discussing in the House today. It is important to place this issue in context. The people who work for the Central Gippsland Accommodation and Support Service, CGASS, spoke to me about this issue last week and advised me that they have children as young as 10 and 11 years old presenting as being homeless for their service. Ten and 11 years old—that is grade 4 and grade 5. These children are not even out of primary school, and they are homeless.

There are a lot of problems relating to youth homelessness which are not about much apart from parenting skills. Those parents who have children who are at risk of homelessness would recognise that a lot of the problem relates to that situation. They recognise that the problems lie with parenting skills, and they want to go about getting some support in teaching them how to be better parents and how to better care for their children. Unfortunately, when these parents find themselves deficient in one part of parenting and put their hand up and say, `We would like to get a little bit of help; we would like to get a little bit of support from government in making ourselves a better family,' there are not the services available to assist them in that regard. Unfortunately, whilst there are a lot of good families who want to make themselves better families and become better parents, and obviously reduce the risk of their children becoming homeless, there are not the services available to them to assist them in that regard.

We need to be sensitive as well to the types of programs that we offer to families who are going about the business of improving their parenting skills. We need to be sensitive in not calling any of the programs that we offer to those people `Struggling parents programs', `Bad parents programs' or any of those things. We need to be sensitive that there is often—unfortunately—a great deal of embarrassment that people feel in accessing these types of services. We need to be sensitive to that.

It is just as important to recognise that it is not just kids from working-class backgrounds who suffer from homelessness. It occurs in families from all walks of life. For my own part, I have to confess that I never thought that this would be an issue which would affect middle-class families, but the people in the field advise me that there is just as great a likelihood of children from middle-class backgrounds getting themselves involved in homelessness as there is for children from other walks of life.

Unquestionably, the Howard government's changes to the common youth allowance have made homelessness worse in Australia. Young adults living at home now regularly have to ask parents for money in order to get the basics of life, simply because they are no longer eligible for the common youth allowance. So we are sending these people a mixed message. On the one hand, we are preaching to them that they need to take responsibility for themselves whilst, on the other hand, we are telling them that they need to be dependent on mum and dad to get a few dollars each week. This represents a serious contradiction and is something which the Howard government needs to face up to if we are to move forward at all on this issue.

When talking about youth homelessness, people regularly refer to refuges. I want to make the point that refuges are not appropriate for all young people, simply because young people tend not to be street smart enough to be able to make their way through in a refuge. By placing them in a refuge we can often be placing them at risk. Young people need to be given the option of being housed with families. This is an important point to make because this is about involving the community in dealing with some of these issues, making the community a part of the solution.

I want to mention briefly the experience I had at Warragul only last week where a forum was called to discuss homelessness and other serious issues affecting the community there. A woman who lives on a farm there mentioned how much benefit she got from having homeless children come and spend time with her family every Christmas. This was not only something which those homeless people got benefit from but also something which her children got benefit from. It improved their understanding and empathy with young homeless people. In looking for solutions to youth homelessness, we need to be serious about engaging with the community and making them very much a part of the solution.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins) —Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.