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Christmas in Crisis

18 December 2017 Magazine

Christmas in Crisis

This Christmas, thousands of young homeless people will have no place to lay their heads. Katherine Smyrk speaks to some of the people who are trying to help.

It’s one of the first hot days of the season when I go to visit the Stopover Youth Refuge run by Melbourne City Mission. The squat, blonde-brick building that was once a nursing home is surrounded by droopy gum trees, and their peppery smell crackles in the hot air. But inside it is cool and calm. The blinds are drawn in the lounge room and two boys are playing video games on a big TV. One of them, Billy, who turned 20 just a few days before, approaches me and Trish Barclay, Melbourne City Mission’s (MCM) youth refuge manager.

“We’ve run out of milk,” he says.

Barclay laughs. “Don’t worry,” she says to me. “We do have more milk. We do feed the young people.”

“We drink a lot of Milo,” says Billy. Of course they do; this is basically a big share house for young people, and that’s what happens in share houses. With the cosy lounge room and casual air, it’s easy to forget that this isn’t an average share house. It is crisis accommodation for at-risk or homeless young people aged 16 to 25. Ultimately, it’s a place for people with nowhere else to go.

Billy is one of those people. He was unable to live with his mum and stepdad, so he was staying with friends of friends. But when he lost his job as an apprentice bricklayer, they kicked him out.

“I stuffed it all up,” Billy says with a fatalism that makes my heart twist. Barclay explains that every refuge has a bed reserved for emergency last-minute stays, a safety net to try to make sure young people don’t have to sleep rough. Billy bounced around a few of those before he got the place at Stopover.

Of the approximately 100,000 Australians who are homeless every night, Salvation Army statistics show that more than a third are under 25. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHC) says that in 2015-2016, 43,000 young people approached a specialist homelessness service alone.

There are 15 youth refuges that Billy could have gone to in Victoria. That’s just 109 beds. He was lucky to get one of them.

“There’s long waiting lists,” Barclay sighs. MCM operates three other youth crisis accommodation facilities in the city. “We’re basically a family violence refuge at the moment, too.”

AIHC says that domestic and family violence or unstable housing remain the most common reasons for young people seeking assistance.

Youth crisis centres also often see a disproportionate number of LGBTIQ+ young people, and Barclay said there had been an upswing since the furious debate over marriage equality.

Another contributing factor to youth homelessness is ageing out of the state care system. Once a young person turns 18, they no longer qualify for funding for state care. A 2015 Swinburne University report claimed that 50 per cent of young people who left state care at 18 would be homeless, in prison, unemployed or a new parent within 12 months. There is a push to change the age to 21, as it has been in places like the UK and New Zealand.

Natalie* (* some names have been changed) lived in state care from the age of 14. But when she turned 18, she couldn’t stay there anymore. She moved around for a little while, but now is staying in an MCM refuge, looking for work.

“I haven’t had much luck. Most places want a Year 10 pass and I don’t have that. I left school in Year 9,” she says.

Barclay points out that for a young person with no money or resources, it can be hard to get a job because they don’t know where they’ll be living in a month. Joblessness in turn means private rental is increasingly out of reach. But Natalie is hoping that once she finds stable housing she can get on with her life again.

“I’d like to be a paediatric nurse one day. I’d like to go back to school, when I’ve got stability sorted,” she says.

Billy jokes around with a worker with purple hair who has the overnight shift. He stops mid-conversation to wave to someone else passing by. In between joking around, he tells me he is waiting for some accommodation where he would be able to stay for a whole year. He would like to get back into his apprenticeship.

“First, I’ll find somewhere to live and be settled, and then work on getting back on my feet again,” he explains.

While the services provided at crisis accommodation centres are invaluable – helping young people get ID, accessing counselling, being taught how to cook and wash clothes – the numbers don’t add up. There aren’t enough crisis accommodation beds to go around. And with heartbreaking predictability, it all seems to come back to one thing: a lack of affordable housing.

After six weeks, the funding to support a young person at a refuge runs out. The next step is often transitional housing, where they can continue to get access to services until they can go into private rental. But with fewer and fewer affordable private rentals, more people are staying longer in transitional housing. Which means there is nowhere for people in crisis accommodation to go.

“The lack of housing at the moment is the worst I’ve seen it, and I’ve been working in housing for 13 years,” says Barclay. “There used to be a period where you’d have a vacancy for a couple of days. It does not happen anymore.”

The CEO of Mission Australia, Catherine Yeomans, says that their 2015 report into youth homelessness showed the same trends, with one in seven young Australians now at risk of homelessness.

“It is unacceptable that in 21st century Australia, there are more than 40,000 children and young people homeless on any given night,” she says. “We need to stop young people falling into a cycle of homelessness.”

But in the meantime, the workers in the crisis accommodation shelters try their best to keep the momentum going.

“We have to be super creative,” says Barclay with quiet resolve. “That’s why it’s really important to build community connection, because you might find a temporary stay with someone they’ve met through their local church or youth group. That’s really important.” She cups her hands tenderly in her lap. “We do need the community to help us hold some of this stuff.”

And with Christmas coming up, there is a real effort to keep cheer levels high.

“Christmas is a really strange time in refuge,” explains Barclay. “There’s more of an intense need for support, because all of that comes up, the fact that they don’t have a home. They’re surrounded by it, this concept of the perfect Christmas, and they don’t have that.”

But, as always, the workers at the refuge adapt to the individual needs of each young person with a determined optimism that is obvious as soon as you enter the building.
“We’ve got a real chance to intervene before they accept a life of chronic homelessness,” says Barclay. “Young people are very capable, their capacity for change is really high.”

If a young person actually manages to get a permanent place to stay, she says the outcomes are often good. They may never need to access homelessness services again. That’s why this crisis accommodation is so vital.

We walk out to the courtyard where Billy is sitting, blinking in the sun. He gives us a wry grin. Barclay looks at me.

“I could tell you how important it is forever.”

Katherine Smyrk is Deputy Editor of The Big Issue. Follow her on Twitter at @KSmyrk.

Artwork by Antra Švarcs. 

This article first appeared in the Christmas edition of The Big Issue, which includes a dedicated section featuring the Big Issue vendors of Australia, reflecting on the year that was, making wishes for Christmas and talking about their hopes for 2018. Pick up a copy of the magazine today. Street vendors always earn half the cover price – and that income is even more important at this time of year. 


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