In the seven schools of Geelong, Australia, an unusual program is part of the beginning of every school year. Students are given a survey with nearly 100 questions probing into their living status: Do you feel safe at home? Are you confident you’ll have enough food for dinner tonight? Do you find reasons to sleep elsewhere?
The survey is part of the Geelong Project, an initiative in its seventh year. In that time, Geelong has seen a 20 percent drop in students leaving school without their diploma (compared to a slow increase in Australia at large) and a nearly 50 percent decrease in minors becoming homeless.
The survey seems prying to many, and it acknowledges that it is. “Your answers to various questions will be treated in strict confidence,” says a disclaimer at the top of the first page. “A few questions might seem a little personal, but please have the confidence to answer honestly.”
Because without honesty, the survey can’t perform its function, which is to help prevent student homelessness and dropping out.
“Youth homelessness in Australia and around the world is just such a massive issue,” said Kylie Hodgson, a member of the Barwon Child Youth and Family group (BCYF), which wrote the survey. “And there just has to be something to be done to stop it.”
Based on the results of the study, a series of measures are triggered, from therapy and group counseling to emergency aid and temporary housing, to help protect students whose living situations are at risk. It also serves to identify students who are emotionally disengaged from school, which is also a homelessness prevention measure: young adults without a high school diploma are nearly five times more likely to experience homelessness. Most importantly, it is a form of early intervention: solving a problem before it becomes a problem.
“The thing with early intervention: It’s not a quick fix. It’s something that is quite slow,” said Sandy Meessen, team leader of The Geelong Project. “It’s taken six years for us to see that.”
The program’s success has inspired the Victoria state education department to expand The Geelong Project to four new schools last year and commission an independent evaluation.
Cities in the U.S. such as Seattle and Minneapolis are looking at its successes and considering its methods for their own use, attempting to take into account the racial disparities in housing and criminal justice systems that are a hallmark of life in the U.S. “These factors are sadly, uniquely American,” said Marshaun Barber, executive director of All Seattle Kids Home. “Any comprehensive strategy has to accommodate for that.”