Why youth homelessness is a business problem and how SMEs can make a positive difference


Zoe Robinson, CEO of Yfoundations with Simon Byrnes

Today is Youth Homelessness Matters Day. Homelessness is often seen as a challenge for governments and charities to solve, but the private sector can play a part too – beyond throwing money at the issue.

Youth homelessness is growing at an epidemic rate, and SMEs should take notice. These young people are future job candidates and even potential business owners.

Young people experiencing homelessness is mostly a hidden statistic and rarely the fault of the victim. Rather, their plight is commonly due to collateral damage from domestic violence, mental health issues, family breakdowns and financial hardship brought on from wider societal issues.

For young people who have experienced homelessness and are trying to rebuild their lives, there are an overwhelming number of roadblocks. Even the simplest things are difficult. For example, how do you get a Medicare card with no fixed address? How do you organise job interviews when you don’t have consistent access to a power point to charge your mobile? How do you feel confident at work experience when you have limited clothing options and you need to travel to access a free washing machine?

But we have seen how the right support can make a significant difference to a young person experiencing homelessness. They can get back on track and live life, do all the things many of us take for granted. They can sit for exams, go to the formal, get an after-school job and, yes, they can absolutely thrive, go to uni, have a career, contribute to society, and have a family of their own.

And your business can play a role in that journey. Hint: It doesn’t necessarily involve throwing money at the issue!

The difference you can make

SMEs can help provide employment pathways to young people who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness. In exchange, you are hiring someone who is incredibly resilient, determined, resourceful, grateful and a good problem solver. After all, experiencing homelessness does not define them.

It does, however, mean you need to be aware of some of the challenges they face to bring their talent into your team and their contribution to your think-tanks. For example, the need for a permanent address can make entering the workforce tricky, so rethink the reasons behind the gap in their CV. A poor school attendance record may indicate a period when they were not allowed to attend while they did not have an address, or they did not have a guardian who could sign their forms.

Make the most of your savvy business owner thinking to see through the limitations and focus on the opportunities. For example, perhaps there is an opportunity for additional training, or alternative skills assessment, that would overcome those challenges.

One example of a successful business model is That PlaYce Cafe in Kempsey, which offers young people who are at risk of homelessness or have experienced homelessness two-year traineeships. Their goal is to train and employ at-risk youth. Businesses can do this on a smaller scale by making provision for marginalised youth in their recruitment, training and employment process. Or simply considering alternative pathways for young people who would serve your business purpose well.

Your business purpose

Coming from a corporate career to now being CEO of a not-for-profit (Yfoundations, the peak body for youth homelessness in NSW), I can see the difference having a clear purpose makes. The reason why some NFPs are able to do great work and have a high impact with very few resources, is that every moment and decision is centred on their purpose. By comparison, corporates have a lot, so they need to ensure they use that plenty with purpose.

SMEs have a few things in common with not-for-profits. We are innovative and can use our skills and resources to do a lot with a little. One thing that SMEs can learn from NFPs is that lean doesn’t make it impossible to exceed goals – it just means you have to make clear, decisive choices.

And if a young person who has experienced homelessness fits with your business purpose and will do great work, then smart businesses will create platforms and opportunities for those young people to bring their value to the business. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement, but also makes you part of the solution to Australia’s youth homelessness epidemic.

Youth homelessness is a whole of community issue that can and will be significantly reduced if we work together.


About the author

Zoë Robinson is the CEO of Yfoundations, the peak body for youth homelessness in NSW. She is also on the board of MyFoundations (Housing Provider) and Homelessness Australia (National Homelessness Peak), and Chair of the National Youth Coalition for Housing (defunded national peak). Her law degree, Masters of Human Rights, volunteer experience, and background in the professional services industry, combine with her firm belief that young people should be given every opportunity to succeed and set themselves up for success, and that starts with a stable home and access to basic human rights that allow them to reach their full potential.