–In Geelong, helping hands give youth a future

February 15, 2018

A modest community project to decrease the number of students becoming homeless and leaving school has achieved extraordinary success, and sparked interest in state and federal education departments.

The Geelong Project – the brainchild of local schools and youth services – has produced a 40 per cent reduction over three years in the number of homeless students asking for help, and a 20 per cent reduction in those leaving school early.

For much of this decade, about 230 school-age young people would use specialist homelessness services in Geelong each year. But over the past three years, that number has declined to about 130.

The Geelong Project began when three schools – Northern Bay Secondary College, Newcomb Secondary School and Geelong High School – and local youth services realised their homelessness response wasn’t getting much traction and joined forces to develop a community response.

It uses an approach that seems commonsense but is – sadly – unusual.

Each student in the three pilot schools does a yearly survey to see if they are experiencing problems that might catapult them into homelessness, such as family dysfunction, financial problems or mental illness.

And the schools and services also work much more closely together.

This means struggling students are given quick support, rather than waiting until a crisis surfaces and they have left home.

“Students are always on the radar, so they can come back in and get some help,” says Swinburne University social researcher Dr David McKenzie, who designed the program. “Society regards school leaving as an educational problem, but often behind that are family issues.”

When Josh’s teachers at Northern Bay Secondary College contacted Michael, the social worker talked to the 17-year-old and realised he was struggling with family conflict and financial pressure. Josh was anxious about his family’s precarious financial situation, so he had decided to quit school and find casual work.

So Michael, who works for Barwon Child, Youth & Family, arranged a flexible study program for Josh, and extra mental health support. But what helped Josh most was joining Impact, a student-led youth program that ran activities to lift student confidence.

At an event to celebrate the program’s end, Josh’s mother spoke, tears rolling down her cheeks, about how thankful she was to see a major change in her son, who is doing year 12 this year. Michael agrees: “The big thing that I reflect on was that we got Josh at the right time. A little bit later we could have lost him, he would have left school.”

The project has drawn interest from state and national education departments. It was initially funded by the state government but ran out of funding. The partners would like further state support so it can be expanded.

Nearly 11,000 primary and secondary students sought help from homelessness services in Victoria in 2016-17, according to the Council to Homeless Persons.

*Surnames have been omitted on request.

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