YOUNG people desperate to keep a roof over their heads are increasingly using sex to pay for accommodation, food and clothing, a veteran social worker says.
Integrated Family and Youth Service CEO Paul Morton told a Sunshine Coast youth unemployment summit this week that many young people had been priced out of accommodation in Queensland regional areas.
Mr Morton said the young were being forced into opportunistic and full-time prostitution.
He said the lack of crisis accommodation, particularly for young people, meant they were "couch surfing" and often paying their way through casual sex.
It was not only young women selling themselves but also young men.
The long-term impact included mental illness, self-harm, suicide, and relationship breakdowns.
"There have now been a number of reports that have shown a clear correlation between increasing poverty and unemployment and young people using sex as a form of currency,'' Mr Morton said.
"Sex is often used to buy basic needs.
"It is known that this form of currency can have a long-term psychological and emotional effect.''
Mr Morton estimated there would be hundreds on the Sunshine Coast in this situation.
He said the problem extended to university students and single mothers going into prostitution.
Mr Morton, who has 28 years' experience in community work, most of those on the Coast, said there were only 12 crisis beds for young people here - a number which had not grown in years.
While in the past crisis services had been able to put young people in tents and caravans and shared accommodation, he said cheaper accommodation options no longer existed here.
The summit, put on by the Sunshine Coast Business Council and supported by the Daily, heard that young unemployed people without parental or family support were forced to live on $29 a day - significantly below the poverty line.
Mr Morton asked those attending the forum to imagine what it would be like to literally have no family to fall back on, whether through death, imprisonment or abuse.
One youth told him recently he had never known not being in the care of the state after having 42 placements in 16 years.
Mr Morton said youths were resorting to crime because they felt they had no other options.
Some have told him they preferred being locked up because at least they were guaranteed a place to sleep, food and TV.
He called for more funding and programs to work with young people rather than just sending them to jail.
Mr Morton said it cost about $250,000 a year to keep someone under 17 in custody.
It would make more sense to pay troubled youths $100 a day to work under supervised programs.
ADDING UP THE COSTS
$10.6 billion: cost of mental illness among 12-25-year-olds in Australia
$8 billion: cost of illicit drug abuse nationally each year
$3.2 billion: cost of prisons in Australia - about $80,000 to $100,000 for each prisoner - for young people, $250,000 a year
$36 billion: cost of alcohol related assaults in Australia
Source: IFYS presentation,
Sunshine Coast Business Council Youth Prosperity summit