Before a reporting trip to Australia, we wanted to know what you wanted to know about the Geelong Project, and readers didn’t disappoint.
It’s an Australian program that captured global attention for its track record of cutting the number of youth entering the homeless system in Geelong (pronounced Jeh-long) nearly in half since its launch in 2013. Now, school districts in South King County may host one of the first U.S. pilots of the Geelong Project.
You sent us close to three dozen compelling — and in some cases, cheeky — questions. Here’s an initial batch of answers, focusing on the structure of the program and local context of homelessness in Geelong. We’ll get to more of your questions in the coming weeks, and please feel free to submit new ones here.
What’s the content of the survey used to assess student risk? How do students feel about being surveyed?
The student needs survey, as it’s formally called, asks students for basic information like their grade, gender, age and cultural identity — Anglo, Indigenous or “Australian from another ethnic background.” (Interestingly, Australia does not collect demographic data about race and limits its census to questions about ancestry, language and place of birth.)
The survey also asks whether students receive youth allowance, a financial stipend between about $500 and $1,200 a month (in American dollars, that’s about $345 and $828) that the federal government offers to qualifying young people up to age 24. Other questions focus on the stability of each student’s personal life — “Do you feel safe at home?” and “In the past month, have you ever eaten less than you thought you should eat because there was not enough money to buy food?” — or have students rank their level of agreement with statements about their self-esteem, safety and comfort at school and use of marijuana or other drugs.
(You can view an early version of the survey at the end of this July 2013 report.)
The survey can take anywhere from a day to two weeks, and students take it at the beginning and middle of the academic year. “Normally the students are really up to it,” Sandy Meessen, team leader for the Geelong Project, said of the survey. “It’s quite rare that we’d have young people opt out the day of (the survey) but it does happen.”
At Northern Bay College, one of the schools we visited in Geelong, a student who asked to remain anonymous said he didn’t mind answering such personal questions.
“Say, like, you see someone’s upset in the hallway,” the 14-year-old said. “What’re you going to do? Just ignore them? No, you ask what’s wrong. That’s what they’re (the Geelong Project) trying to do with us — make us get better.”
What sorts of support are families offered and most in demand?
After students complete the survey, a team of Geelong Project early-intervention workers interview them individually to identify what support they might need to stay in school and prevent them from becoming homeless.
The screening, now in place at seven schools, has revealed three main issues among young people: Mental health, domestic violence and family conflict.
“I see a lot of young people, because of their mental health, having a lot of family conflicts,” said Laura Vecchio, who in June joined the program as its first early-intervention worker specifically focused on mental health.
“When they get unwell, they start rejecting their home,” she added. “They might not see it as a safe place and would rather be homeless.”
In Australia, the federal government provides young people (ages 12-25) with free or cheap access to mental-health support through a national program dubbed headspace. The waitlist for headspace, however, often reaches three months, Vecchio said, so she tries to connect students with other services in the community.
As for domestic violence, early-intervention workers do explain to young people that they’re required to report any situations that would put them in danger to the Department of Child Protection. But they also have contacts at local agencies that help women, children and young people experiencing violence at home.
Family conflict has emerged as a new focus for the Geelong Project. While we were in Australia, the early-intervention workers gathered in Melbourne for special training about how to mediate disputes without coming off as paternalistic.
“We try to engage families as much as we can,” said Chris Singh, another early-intervention worker.
“Our main priority is working around the young person, and from that, we work with the family around how we can support that young person,” he said.
What are the main drivers of homelessness in Geelong/the Melbourne area?
Just 15.5% of rental properties in the Greater Geelong area are considered affordable, meaning tenants would spend less than a third of their gross income on rent. That’s the lowest affordability rate in nearly two decades, according to the Geelong Advertiser newspaper.
By comparison, other regional centers in the state of Victoria had affordability rates above 40% and 50%. And despite a historical decline in housing values across the country, home prices in Geelong have climbed nearly 30% over the past three years.
Locals note the city’s unofficial nickname — Sleepy Hollow — for its reputation as a quiet place, especially compared to nearby Melbourne. But now, it’s not uncommon to hear workers consider the hourlong-plus commute from Geelong to Melbourne as an acceptable trade-off for a cheaper cost of living.
New housing in Geelong mostly takes the form of upscale homes and the city’s first high-rise apartments. And demand continues to increase as private and public entities establish new headquarters in downtown Geelong.
At one of the city’s two youth shelters, we met a young man named Alex.
He had been renting on his own in a Geelong suburb but in April his landlord told him of upcoming renovations that would put him out of the apartment for a few months. Then, in June, the landlord mentioned that Alex’s rent would more than double thanks to the makeover.
“I could’ve opened a dispute but that wouldn’t give me any roof (over my head) so I just gave up,” Alex said.
“There’s nothing much for me here,” he said before a group dinner at the shelter. “Why not go somewhere I’ve always wanted to go?”
He’s moving to Vancouver, B.C.