Youth can be viewed as a demographic category that is historically and culturally constructed (Wyn & White,1997 in Mallett et al.2010). Terms such as ‘young people’ and ‘adolescence’ are related terms to the youth and how we think of these groups and their abilities, characteristics and nature varies across time, place, culture and social context they inhibit in. According to the academic and policy provision literature in Australia and in alliance with the World Health Organization, ‘young people’ refer to people who are aged between 12 years to 25 years (Mallett et al. 2010). Our understandings of issues surrounding these young people such as youth delinquency and youth homelessness are shaped and constructed by the social context and discourse to which they have been assigned to (Mallett et al. 2010).
Youth homelessness is one of the main concerns in many of the developed as well as some developing nations due to issues of power, violence and social control associated with the homeless youth (Milburn et al. 2007 & Hatty et al. 1996). According to the World Health Organization (1993) there are approximately 100 million children living on the streets all over the world without proper care or shelter (WHO, 1993). There is a range of definition to homelessness with little agreement as to what constitutes the homelessness. The most common definition that dominates the public’s view point is the ‘rooflessness’ or the ‘street homelessness’, that defines homeless people as those who are sleeping rough and living on the streets (Hutson & Liddiard, 1994). The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in their report defines homelessness as ‘a lifestyle which includes insecurity and transiency of shelter’. In its definition of homelessness, it further emphasised that homelessness is not merely limited to the lack of shelter but also indicates a state of vulnerability to dangers such as abuse due to the detachment from family (Hatty et al. 1996). According to MacKenzie & Chamberlain (2006), the basic idea underlying the cultural definition of homelessness is the shared community standards about the minimum level of accommodation people are expected to have in their community. This minimum level of accommodation acts as the basis for the categorization of homelessness as primary, secondary and tertiary categories of homelessness. The primary category includes those without conventional accommodation and are people living on the streets and the secondary homelessness includes those that move around temporary shelter such as boarding houses and short term stays with other households. The tertiary category of homelessness includes people who are in one particular shelter on a medium – to long term basis which is defined as minimum 13 weeks (MacKenzie & Chamberlain, 2006). This definition of homelessness however does not take into account or include all of the homeless population that are at risk and therefore the service providers often use a more broader definition that includes people who are at risk and are attempting to return to secure accommodation (MacKenzie & Chamberlain, 2006).
The discourse of ‘at risk’ youth refers to how young people tend to risk their future by engaging in behaviors that would jeopardize a desirable future through engaging in problematic behaviors in the future. This discourse puts the individual ‘at risk’ soles responsible for changing their behaviors by individualizing the problems and the solutions (Mallet et al. 2010). Therefore, the homeless youth can be viewed within this discourse when looking into their problematic behaviors such as substance abuse or unsafe sex which in turn labels these youth and stigmatizing them against other youth.
WHY LEAVE HOME? GENDER RACE ETC
Youth homelessness is a major political and social issue in contemporary Australia where a 50,000 homeless youth with approximately 2% aged between 15 – 24 years was reported by the year 1998 (Chamberlain & MacKenzie, 1998, cited in Milburn et al. 2007). According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, at year 2006, the homeless population in Australia totaled 105,000 with 16% accounting for absolute homelessness such as sleeping out on the streets or in improvised shelter and the number of homeless youth aged between 12 to 18 years was reported as 17,891 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008). These groups of youth are often related with stigma that is associated with deviance and an economically and socially marginalized underclass that created social fears among the public and promote the vulnerability faced by these youth (Blackman, 1997). They are also three times more likely to be arrested for juvenile crimes due to their homelessness (Kaufman & Spatz – Wisdom, 1999 cited in Thrane et al. 2008).
In this essay I will argue that the groups of homeless youth are at greater risk than other groups of youth due to the greater vulnerability to deviant behaviors and that these deviant behaviors are social constructions that are mostly related to the public perceptions, space and place and as a result are targeted by the law enforcement authorities, mainly the police due to the contextual factors associated with their life style.
Why at greater risk?
Many studies have been published on the homeless youth and their involvement in the criminal activities (Miles & Okamoto, 2008) and it is revealed that the homeless and runaway youth are at higher risks of offending and in engaging in deviant behavior (Thrane et al. 2008) as while on the streets they are always exposed to environments with criminal activity and violence (Miles & Okamoto, 2008). Homeless young people are typically viewed as leading risky and chaotic lives with addictions and mental and other health problems that threaten their well-being (Mallett et al. 2010). They often have poor health and well-being due to high level of substance use and abuse and are at higher levels of risk in contracting sexually transmitted disease and experiencing victimization. The key areas of risk related behaviors among homeless youth include drug and alcohol use, physical and mental health issues, unsafe sexual practices and sexual health as well as violence (Mallett et al. 2010). Assaulting behavior, shoplifting, drug dealing and prostitution to earn money for food are well known crimes among homeless youth (Thrane et al. 2008). Homeless youth are also represented as a high risk population with respect to HIV infections as a result of complex psychological and social forces they are exposed. With the freedom from parental and other social controls at young age, these youth has a greater ability to engage in deviant and risky behaviors which includes sexual risk activities which puts this vulnerable population at higher risk for HIV than their housed counter parts (Milburn et al. 2007). These behaviors can also be explained by their attitude towards their own bodies. With little or no option in life, these young people view their bodies as the last resort or personal capital they own. It is also the last thing they can exercise control or choice over as well as the only thing available for free. This can lead to regarding the body as the final resource for pleasure that encourages them to extend the body to its limits by use of different substances and by other forms of self inflicted injuries and self abuse (Blackman, 1997).
These criminal activities play a major role in constructing the image of homeless youth as dangerous and deviant (Miles & Okamoto, 2008). These young people are further at risk of being victimized by criminal activity because of the unlikelihood of them reporting such crimes to the police and the lack of control they have over the environment they live in (Baron 1997; Kipke et al. 1997 cited in Miles & Okamoto, 2008). However, it is important to understand the way the context of the street creates a complex set of issues for homeless youth due to negative peer affiliations, exposure to crime, violence and substance use that acts as part of the lived experience of the homeless youth (Miles & Okamoto, 2008).
According to Blackman (1997), the homeless youth groups has sunken themselves in a localized subculture where specific strategies are used for coping with the threats faced in their everyday lives which he calls the ‘cultural immersion’ that often acts as an element of a culture of survival. Problems of hunger and shelter lead to offenses from theft of food to serious theft and together with these, problems of unemployment and shelter brings out prostitution (McCarthey & Hagan, 1992). This reveals the situational context of the deviances and crimes related to the homeless youth. Therefore, we can suggest that much of the deviant behavior the homeless youth engages in were produced by the conditions they live in and hence in addressing these implications policy on changing the situation context of the streets plays a bigger role than simply focusing on punishment methods (Miles & Okamoto, 2008).
Why target by the police?
Police forces have always had an implicit responsibility in maintaining surveillance on the activities of youth cultures and young people in public spaces in order to ensure their welfare as well as to maintain good order. With regards to homeless youth, the police have been responsible in taking action to remove young people from potentially dangerous and unsafe home environments and these contacts with homeless youth and the capacity of the police to caution with some level of discretion over the prosecution of offences is important in the way that police interacts with youth (Smith, 1995). These discretions and contacts may either be positive or negative depending on number of factors. According Mark Finnane from Griffiths University, the police have often shown some level of discretion over their responses to offences against good order with factors such as class, race, gender and ethnicity of the young person in offence carrying some influence on the manner the police would proceed with the offence creating a difference in the way young people are treated for offences (Finnane cited in White & Alder, 1994). This is particularly relevant in regards to the Aboriginal homeless youth in Australia with serious concerns raised on the relationship between Aboriginal young people and the juvenile justice system (Cunneen, 1995). Aboriginal homeless young people are often subjected to police surveillance with more aggressive police interventions, intimidations and harassments in their day to day lives (Smith, 1995). The Indigenous people were also over represented in all states of the homeless population in Australia (MacKenzie & Chamberlain, 2008) as well as in public custody and juvenile detention centers (Cunneen, 1995).
Unemployed and with little or no disposable income and with more time in hand, the spaces homeless young people inhabit are more likely to be of risk and violence and as a result they are continually exposed to aggressions which are far from their choosing (Blackman, 1997). Also due to the little social connections they have within the rest of the homeless youth, these young people tend to gather around in public spaces more often that other young people. Due to commercialization where more public space is been taken off for commercial purposes the young homeless youth tend to meet and socialize in shopping centers and other similar places where they become obvious targets of the law enforcement authorities (Smith, 1995). Therefore, need for negotiating public space is a main factor that attracts the police forces to homeless youth as the police carries the responsibility in maintaining good order where as the homeless youth are in search of claiming space of themselves for shelter and survival.
The relationship between the police and homeless youth are also affected by the public perception of homeless young people (Finnane cited in Smith, 1995). The public’s attitude that in return affects the local policies has the ability to increase or decrease the level of social control or strain for homeless youth (Miles & Okamoto, 2008). The media portrayal of social problems like homelessness has a great impact on the formation of public attitudes as the media acts as the main source of information to many people (Hutson & Lididard, 1994). For example, when the term ‘juvenile delinquency’ was first presented in the media in the 1950s with a view of youth culture as deviant or delinquent, increasing policing measures were made in order to keep youth cultures under surveillance. Incidents as such provide evidence of a clear relationship between public perception, the media presentations and public policy (Smith, 1995). And these policies and attitudes could result in alienating and stigmatizing the homeless young people by acting as a barrier to achieve positive goals and forcing negative relationships with their communities and authorities (Miles & Okamoto, 2008).
In conclusion, young people living on the streets have typically exited from households with conflict and violence into the streets where they experience threats and acts of violence by other homeless and street predators as well as by those in authority particularly the police (Davis, Hatty & Burke, 1995). It is not surprising that these young people encounter more contacts with the police as much of the homeless people reported incidence of drug, alcohol and other substance abuse and minor petty crimes to major threats (Smith, 1995). These crimes associated with the homeless youth are not simply deviant behaviors that can be individualized but are products of the contextual and environmental factors surrounding these youth. Studies have revealed that many homeless young people (up to 55%) reported contact with the police as a consequence of their homelessness and majority of the respondents reported negative relationships with the police where they were distrustful and fearful of the police (Thrane et al. 2008) while some mentioning of instances where the police helping them access services and help(Smith, 1995). Therefore, it is important that the authorities look more into the context of these homeless young people who are often disengaged from positive sources and are in need direction and assistance rather than control or punishment and criminalizing the homeless youth.