The Future of Youth Housing: Are youth foyers the answer?
For a young person to achieve independent living, relatively sustainable employment and a vocational path is needed. Youth employment and associated transition issues have been the focus of the National Youth Commission’s Inquiry into Youth Employment and Transition, an independent community inquiry into the complex transitions experienced by young people as they move from secondary education and adolescence along post-secondary education and training pathways to employment and independent living as young adults. Along the way, about three out of ten young people are missing out on achieving a viable transition pathway, and only some manage to recover with help.
Access to appropriate housing, homelessness, employment, and unemployment are all interconnected issues. Youth homelessness remains a social problem and a difficult experience for too many young people as they attempt to navigate their transition from dependence to independence. Access to social housing for young people is not a viable option since only a small proportion of them are accepted as main tenants of social housing properties . Many young people have not yet secured full-time jobs, are either unemployed or under-employed or are still engaged in education/training pathways.
There have been several relevant inquiries: The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Committee (HREOC) Inquiry led by Commissioner Brian Burdekin, which produced a landmark report Our Homeless Children (1990); a Parliamentary House of Representatives report, Aspects of Youth Homelessness (1995); and an independent 2008 National Youth Commission Inquiry into Youth Homelessness which issued Australia’s Homeless Youth . In March 2021, the Victorian Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee report entitled Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria: Final Report was released . It is not that there has been a lack of policy thinking about youth homelessness in Australia.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that young people are a significant cohort within the homeless population, they have missed out time and time again when governments of the day have failed to follow through with strategic action around a long-term planned expansion of housing options for young people and early interventions.
Youth homelessness is a solvable problem. It is a problem that ultimately requires a sustained national effort, and that has yet to happen. The National Youth Commission in 2008 argued that Australia needed a new commitment on homelessness from Commonwealth, State, and Territory governments – a national framework and national action plan. The report outlined the architecture of this national commitment as follows:
- A national aspirational horizon – the goal of eliminating youth homelessness by 2030;
- Appropriate structures and processes designed to work across election cycles in a bipartisan way;
- Specific targets over the short, medium and long-term;
- Strategies that set out realistically how targets will be reached;
- A youth-centred focus for service provision and programs;
- Review and public monitoring so that progress can be recognized and problems identified against the needs of homeless young people. 
Affordable housing was the second key policy proposition in the NYC’s Roadmap for Youth Homelessness document that was widely distributed in 2008 while expressing a concern that there be ‘explicit attention to the needs of young people and in particular disadvantaged young people’. Furthermore, the Inquiry advocated ‘a new form of youth housing that links housing to education, training and employment programs’.
Australia had not done so well with this policy nexus. In the past, there was a Jobs Placement Employment & Training program (JPET) managed by the Department of Employment and Workplace Relations (DEWR). At the time, supported accommodation for people experiencing homelessness was managed through the Department of Family, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaCSIA). This separation was a less than ideal model and of doubtful efficacy even while in full swing.
The NYC Inquiry into Youth Homelessness advocated that:
an Australian version of the UK/European Foyer youth housing model should be developed that packages accommodation with other supports, particularly education and training. Other initiatives might include accommodation for homeless school students and ‘boarding school’ projects for Indigenous communities. 
In 2008, there were only a few pilot foyer projects, but since then various jurisdictions have funded foyer projects. There are now at least 15 foyers operating across Australia, in most jurisdictions.
The current NYCA Inquiry into Youth Employment and Transitions has highlighted the importance of stable housing for young people to succeed in education, training, and employment. The NYCA Inquiry has proposed the Youth Futures Guarantee  to help young people navigate the transition from school to post-school education, training, and employment. Housing is one of the nine pillars of the Guarantee.
There are several features that the NYC Inquiry considers essential in housing for young people:
- Social and affordable youth housing is linked to education and training, or employment opportunities and pathways.
- Social and affordable youth housing ideally should be located near employment, education, training, services, and transport, because transport is a significant barrier to young people accessing opportunities and assistance.
- Wrap-around support for young people who have experienced homelessness, poor mental health, and/or substance abuse, etc. Such support promotes housing stability and as well as addressing the health and well-being needs of young people.
- The goal of social and affordable youth housing and associated supports is about viable independent living arrangements. Young people need flexible, temporary arrangements, but with sufficient security, over multiple years while they work out their path in life.
Youth foyers potentially conform to these criteria. A commitment to education/training and employment is a core criterion for being accepted as a foyer resident. John Thompson (Anglicare WA, Perth WA, 13 August 2019) explained the importance of pathways of study and employment: “Our focus on work and studies reflect the understanding that financial independence is the way to break the cycle of homelessness for young people”.
Many of the Youth Foyers in Australia are located near education and training institutions. For example, there are three Education First Foyers closely associated with TAFEs in Victoria. The new Foyer Central in Sydney is near a major transport hub as well as TAFE and universities.
However, foyers are a costly model, in large part because many of the foyer projects have involved the construction of newly built purpose-designed multi-story facilities. In the UK, there are several examples of dispersed foyers which have apartments or houses in a community linked to a support hub. These facilities incur lower capital costs whilst still delivering quality support for young people.
In a research study based on extensive fieldwork in the UK and Scotland in 2016, Steen and MacKenzie  found that, unlike the UK, the development of foyers in Australia was not financially sustainable in the sense that a package of benefits (income) available to residents is sufficient to cover the support costs of the foyer facilities. In Australia, foyers remain in the category of ‘special projects’. Another difference between the UK foyers and the Australian foyers was that in the UK, foyers were a response to the economic recession of the early 1990s, whereas in Australia, foyers are a part of the response to homelessness.
Several witnesses who provided evidence to the NYC Inquiry hearings in 2019 have claimed that foyers are achieving high educational outcomes. Mission Australia reported that the percentage of their Foyer residents who had completed year 12 or a Certificate III increased from 42 per cent at entry to 67 per cent at the point young people left their Foyer accommodation and to 75 per cent a year after exit (Mission Australia Submission 2019). Likewise, John Thompson reported that of more than 450 young people housed at Perth’s Oxford Foyer since February 2014, 93 per cent had exited into stable and secure accommodation, which they maintained for at least 12 months after leaving; and that almost 90 per cent were engaged in sustainable employment, education, or training.
A recent AHURI research report (2020), while supportive of the robust link between supported accommodation and education/training and employment, has raised a critical concern about the weak links between foyers and specialist homelessness services as well as some of the claims being made about effectiveness . The Victorian Education First foyers pitch eligibility as for 16-24 year-olds ‘experiencing or at-risk of homelessness’ and promote the model as an ‘early intervention measure aimed at assisting young people to avoid entering the cycle of homelessness’. By contrast, Associate Professor David MacKenzie, an advocate of foyers since before 2008, advised the recent Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria that because foyers are funded under Australia’s homelessness response, foyers’ need to take young people out of the homelessness services — not any old young person but those young people who can engage with education and training, and not all young people exiting a homeless service can’ . There appears to be an issue about the positioning and functioning of foyers within the broader service system response to youth homelessness.
Also, Steen and MacKenzie have described a range of possible foyer-like models that deserve to be considered in the bigger scheme of supported housing for young people. The pioneering social housing model for young people developed by My Foundations Youth Housing Company (MFYH) in partnership with the NSW Government is one such innovative approach. The Transitional Housing Plus (Youth) model offers up to five years of housing and support with rental payments that increase annually to approach market rents in the fifth year to prepare young people for market rent conditions . To help young people transition to independent living, partner youth services support residents with any day-to-day issues, especially their engagement with education, training, and/or employment pathways, in which 8 out of 10 residents are engaged.
To answer the question we posed in the title of our article – Are youth foyers the answer? Clearly, foyers are an answer. The Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria has recommended: ‘That the Victorian Government conduct an assessment of suitability for additional Education First Youth Foyer sites in metropolitan and regional areas, with a view to providing funding for additional facilities’ . Support for more foyers is justified but there are several reforms that need to be considered if foyers are to make an impactful contribution to reducing youth homelessness.
In terms of the future of youth housing and broader systemic reform, the National Youth Commission Australia is strongly of the view that all supportive housing models for young people should include support for education, training, and employment pathways.
- Hand, T., and D. MacKenzie, (2020). Young People and Housing Supports in Australia: Income Support, Social Housing and Post-Homelessness Outcomes. UniSA AHURI Research Centre, Adelaide. https://m.library.unisa.edu.au/contentassets/c7cd69c367ef4d81a0107477a6dac704/handmackenzie_2020_young-people-and-housing-support-in-australia_final.pdf
- National Youth Commission into Youth Homelessness (2008). Australia’s Homeless Youth: a report of the national Youth Commission Inquiry into Youth Homelessness. Melbourne: National Youth Commission. https://apo.org.au/sites/default/files/resource-files/2008-04/apo-nid8435.pdf.
- Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee (2021). Inquiry into homelessness in Victoria: Final Report. Parliament of Victoria, Melbourne.
- cit. National Youth Commission into Youth Homelessness, p.1.
- cit. National Youth Commission into Youth Homelessness, p.4.
- National Youth Commission Inquiry into Youth Employment and Transitions. (2020). Youth Futures Guarantee: A New Deal for Young People. National Youth Commission, Melbourne. https://nycinquiry.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/NYCA-Youth-Futures-Guarantee-2020-1.pdf.
- Steen, A. & D. MacKenzie (2017). The Sustainability of the Youth Foyer Model: A Comparison of the UK and Australia. Social Policy & Society, vol.16 no.3, pp.391-404.
- MacKenzie, D., Hand, T., Zufferey, C., McNelis, S., Spinney, A. and Tedmanson, D. (2020). Redesign of a homelessness service system for young people. AHURI Final Report No. 327, Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited. https://www.ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/327, doi:10.18408/ahuri-5119101.
- cit. Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee, pp.155-156.
- Mullins, R. (2016). Social housing for young people: Why My Foundations Youth Housing was formed, Parity, vol.29, no. 3, pp.75-77.
- cit. Legislative Council Legal and Social Issues Committee, p.xxxiii.