Retirement villages are the new frontline of youth homelessness as desperate teens turn to their grandparents for shelter.

For the first time, Centacare is seeing adolescents who are couch-surfing with elderly relatives present to the Outer North Youth Homelessness Service (ONYHS) at Elizabeth for support.

Adolescent Specialist Case Manager Victoria Markovic said the situation was heartbreaking, with elderly people putting their own housing and health at risk to keep their grandchildren off the street.

“It’s a unique situation, and one we haven’t seen before,’’ she said.

“You hear about young people living with nan and pop but it’s not usually in a retirement village.’’

Victoria is currently supporting one young man who has been couch surfing at his grandfather’s retirement village in recent months. The 16-year-old has a disability and complex mental health challenges.

“You can see the grandpa’s genuine stress because he’s exhausted,’’ Victoria said.

“He is doing the best he can for his grandson, but he needs respite.’’

Victoria said family breakdown was among the most common presenting factors for the 250 young people currently engaged with ONYHS.

The service provides case management, early intervention, outreach, post-crisis and wait-list support to young people aged 15-25 years who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

In 2021-2022, ONYHS supported 423 clients. Of those, 204 were homeless at intake.   

“Maybe all other avenues with family have been exhausted and the only ones left are nan and pop who have a couch they can use,’’ Victoria said.

“But then they are getting told by the retirement village that the young person can’t stay with them long-term. The grandparents are well aware of that, but they don’t want the young person on the street.

“If they were in their own home, they might be able to make it work, but it can be really difficult to juggle their own health and daily challenges with the demands of caring for a teenager, especially if the young person has a history of complex trauma.’’

Victoria, who currently has a case load of 25 young people, said youth homelessness was the worst she had seen since joining the sector in 2015. Less than half of the clients engaged with ONYHS are in supported or transitional accommodation.

Victoria said it was becoming increasingly difficult to find solutions amid the rental availability and housing affordability crisis.

“Staying on your nan and pop’s couch in a retirement village is not a long-term option,’’ she said

“This is where we are just crisis managing constantly, trying to support people with doing what they can with what they have but it’s not an ideal outcome because there are very, very limited options and everyone’s circumstances are different.

“It is stressful, there’s no other way to put it. When the young person talks to you or they bring family in, you can see the tears in their eyes because they feel so exhausted and broken.

“Sometimes they’ve gone from one service to the other over months or even years.

“They end up feeling like they have gone to so much effort for no outcome, or the outcome wasn’t what they were hoping for, which is usually their own house.’’

Nationally, one in seven people presenting to homelessness services are young people on their own.

* In Australia, more than 116,000 people experience homelessness on any given night. Homelessness Week (1-7 August) aims to raise awareness of the impact of homelessness, the importance of housing as a solution, and how communities can make a difference. This year’s theme is: To end homelessness we need a plan. For more information visit Homelessness Australia.