OPINION: Teenage New Zealanders without a home in Australia are left in limbo, ineligible for a living allowance. Governments on both sides of the Tasman need to make the plight of these blameless people a priority.
Late last week, the Melbourne community legal centre I work for (WEstjustice) joined 40 other Australian NGOs in sending a letter to Jacinda Ardern asking for her compassion and leadership. It's an unusual sort of trans-Tasman plea, but it's a matter that should concern anyone in Aotearoa who cares about teenage homelessness.
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It all started when we began gathering case studies and reform options for a report launched late last year, Couch Surfing Limbo: Legal, Policy and Service Gaps Affecting Young Couch Surfers in Melbourne's West. "Couch surfing", for the uninitiated who might think of it as a international backpacking option, is essentially a form of homelessness among school-aged home leavers. Say you're 16, and can't stay at home because of family health issues, or violence, or gender discrimination, or another kind of breakdown. You stay on spare foldout futons at classmates' places for as long as they can afford to have you. Other times, it might be with a total stranger, with the risks that entails. In between, you could dip into periods of primary homelessness, sleeping under bridges or in bus shelters.
As our research and understanding deepened, it became clear that there were divergent outcomes for young Australians compared to young New Zealanders living in Australia. At age 16, Australians can apply for the Independent Youth Allowance from Centrelink (their WINZ) on the basis that it's unreasonable for them to continue living at home. It's an essential payment that can grant them a lifeline in the form secure and stable accommodation.
But we soon learned that New Zealand minors, many of whom had arrived with family when they were very young and spent most of their lives here, couldn't access the same entitlements. The risks for kids in a situation like this are obvious.
Couch surfing has been identified as a precursor to chronic homelessness - in other words, the longer you're in a succession of temporary and unstable living arrangements, the more likely you'll be on the streets at 30, 40 or 50. The same goes for finishing high school- you skip exams because you're figuring out where you'll stay that night, you drop out, you can't find a steady income to sustain yourself in housing because you dropped out of high school, and so it goes.
The more immediate threats to health and wellbeing were documented by Newshub when they met a couple of the remarkable young people we've worked with. Teenage girls in this situation are especially at risk of having to go into underage and unsafe sex work as a last resort. Depression and suicidal thoughts are common. Aotearoa is a distant memory that doesn't feel like home, and the place that does feel like home won't help them. Where do they go?
The youth who shared their stories with the media are in their early 20s now. They made it through with love, strength, charity, plain luck. Not everyone is lucky.
Why the gap? As best we can figure, its origins lie in the changes in New Zealand and Australia's bilateral social security arrangements after February 2001, which ruled Kiwis ineligible for most Australian benefits going forward.
We don't think the carve-out of these young people was intentional, because extending Independent Youth Allowance to young Kiwis wouldn't have been a big fiscal drain, then or now (our best estimates suggest that AU$2 million per annum would comfortably meet the need). New Zealand families in Australia who are still under one roof receive a Family Tax Benefit, even if they can't access some other Centrelink entitlements, so it wasn't designed to be this hard.
But we're talking about 16 and 17-year-olds, born in New Zealand but without citizenship, who can't safely live with their parents or caregivers. No one sets out to save money on a subset of a subset of a subset, especially a cohort this vulnerable. Meanwhile, on The Spinoff's side of the ditch, 16 and 17-year-old Australians who were to find themselves in the same situation can get help from WINZ.
To be very clear: we and the other signatories aren't demanding that New Zealand singlehandedly meet the cost of Youth Allowances for these minors. We're not demanding that Australia singlehandedly meet them either. But we do know that the two countries have previously been able to hammer out complex but effective reciprocal cost-sharing arrangements for aged pensions, and in some circumstances disability support pensions. We want to see this treated as a priority in the same way.
When it comes to welfare and social services, the dialogue between both countries has been fraught - but these teenagers are about as blameless as you can get. They're the kids of Dargaville, Mt Roskill, Māngere, Aranui and Whakatāne, uprooted to a new place when their parents looked for economic opportunity post-2008 and post-2011, uprooted again when things turned tough. They didn't have a choice about the situation they found themselves in, but our leaders have the choice to help them out of it.
Joseph Nunweek works for Melbourne community legal centre WEstjustice