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Peer-to-peer outreach could help tackle international student homelessness

Sandra Qian

Thu Jun 20 2013

Homelessness a growing problem among international students

PEER-to-peer support programs could be a far more effective way to reach out to international students facing homelessness. Sandra Qian puts the spotlight on an issue that receives little attention but has a big impact on those it affects.

Peer-to-peer outreach programs such as training students to become ‘housing ambassadors’ for their tertiary institutions, could help tackle the issue of international student homelessness, says Australian Federation of International Students president Garry Kuan.

While there are support services available to international students, Mr Kuan says students are often reluctant to share their personal problems with faculty staff.

My experience with international student is that they love to share their problems with their peers or other international students.

“My experience with international student is that they love to share their problems with their peers or other international students,” he says.

The stereotype of homelessness often brings up images of down-and-out individuals forced to live off the streets, and a similar kind of displacement takes place among international students, who face growing pressures to support themselves during their studies.

Research into homelessness among students at tertiary level is not extensive, and even less data is available about this problem among overseas students who have arrived in Australia to study, but a landmark survey of 97 Australian universities in 2006 conducted by Universities Australia (formerly AVCC) found one in eight students regularly went without food or other necessities due to financial hardship.

In 2008, a University of Melbourne study showed the risk of homelessness is becoming a legitimate concern for many students. Many students reported finding affordable accommodation close to their campuses  a struggle. In some cases, students were forced to sleep on the couches of their friends and relatives.

Anecdotal evidence suggests international students facing homelessness are likely to be living in overcrowded group accommodation, couch surfing or living out of a hostel near their campus. Without knowledge of their rights and options, some can fall prey to rental scams and even exploitation.

Mr Kuan believes newly-arrived international students need to be provided with at least accommodation assistance, if not temporary accommodation, by their tertiary institutions.

This is particularly important, he says, so students are not ‘stranded’ in their new country without contacts or a support network.

Getting help

So what can students facing homelessness do?

In addition to approaching the student services branch at their tertiary institution, Mr Kuan suggests students should utilise the support services of their local government, or peak bodies such as the Australian Federation of International Students which can assist students with finding temporary accommodation.

Students should also be aware of their rights as tenants from channels such as the Tenants Union of Victoria or Consumer Affairs Victoria.

Lastly, there is the International Student Care Service, which provides free and confidential assistance including crisis intervention and support during emergency situations.