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Strategy, ethnography, and service design to help transition young people out of homelessness with DHHS


The challenge

Young people are at a high risk of homelessness in Australia. Women aged 18–24 years have the highest rate of specialist-homelessness service use within Australia. For men, it’s 15-17 years. This formative stage of life makes this cohort simultaneously vulnerable and resilient. Youth refuges—intermediary places to stay—are a critical intervention point to address issues that can either be a turning point or the beginning of a lifelong struggle. Timely and effective support during this period of need can make a fundamental difference to the rest of a young person’s life.

Impact opportunity

Youth refuges are intended to offer safety, stability and support for young people without a home. The system of refuges in Victoria has organically grown over time, however the experience of access, use and support hasn’t been designed as part of a cohesive system. At its worst this lack of cohesion means that people fall through the gaps.

By facilitating the participation of young people who have experienced homelessness, as well as service providers who provide support, we were able to co-design a better future state for everyone involved.

The process

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We engaged personally with service users, using ethnographic research methods to understand the ways in which they want and need to be assisted. Interviews leveraged generative research methods in the form of collage, co-created with participants for each session.

It was important to us to create a safe environment for people in order to have honest conversations about their experiences in a way that didn’t risk re-traumatisation. Before we began, we had our research methods approved by a Human Research Ethics Committee.

Client testimonial

This work gives a voice to those who are at the frontline of young people experiencing homelessness—from vulnerable young people in need to those best placed to help them. Today have armed us with a cohesive service model that will keep young people safe and transition them to sustainable housing options.

Mary Ripley
Principal Project Officer, Homelessness and Accommodation Support, Program Strategy and Policy, DHHS

Ethnographic research

We used ‘collage kits’ to help us understand the experiences of young people without a home, how they seek help, and to mediate conversations in a safe way. This allowed the participants to reflect on their experiences and contribute new ideas.

The insights gathered during research formed the nucleus of new service strategies and experiences, developed alongside service providers and frontline staff, that were then prototyped and tested. The same team looped back around on the ethnographic insights that came out of the field research and concept testing to ensure the proposals were practical in the youth refuge context.

It was crucial that a robust and empathetic design research approach was used, gaining High-Risk Ethics Approval from the Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC). At times we were engaging with people cognitively impaired through intellectual disability, mental illness or substance misuse—and, regardless, reflecting on the experience of homelessness carries a risk of re-traumatisation.

We delivered a report illustrating our research findings, four broad opportunity areas, and six detailed service design recommendations.


We illustrated the challenges that young people face when interacting with youth refuges and brought an understanding of their motivations, beliefs and needs to the design of possible solutions. The proposed service model we delivered to reform the youth refuge system in Victoria strives for a better future for young people without a home.


Designing and building a new way to access online assistance during family violence with Magistrate's Court of Victoria

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