Every day at Enlighten, we see the amazing potential that all young people have. So it breaks my heart when I think about the tens of thousands of girls and boys in Australia who don’t get the same chances to shine as most kids, because they’re trying to work out where they’re going to sleep tonight and where their next meal is coming from.
Depending on where you live, youth homelessness might not be all that visible a problem. But in fact, more than 36,000 people aged 12 to 25 are homeless, half of the young people seeking shelter are turned away because there aren’t enough services, and in Sydney more than 1,000 young people will be sleeping on the streets tonight.
Ella, a young woman I met through my work with Enlighten whom I admire, volunteers regularly to help homeless young people. She has written a story about her experiences one recent winter night on the streets of Sydney. I love Ella’s authentic, compassionate voice, so I wanted to share her story with you. And below, you’ll find links to some charities who are doing amazing work to help disadvantaged young people.
We were here to find the kids who call the streets home. The kids who sleep on cardboard boxes, subtly wedged behind the impressive sandstone structures of Central Station. The kids who might get a grant from Public Housing to rent a hotel room for the night and then cram 5, 6, 7, 8, sometimes more, kids onto the floor of one hotel room so they can stay warm and get high together.
It was cold. So cold that the chill made my nose piercing hurt. So cold I couldn’t feel the tips of my fingers or toes, despite wearing gloves. So cold that going from outside to inside the car, my glasses fogged up so much that I couldn’t see. We couldn’t find many kids. This made me so glad. There were a few we knew, hovering at the food vans for bread and hot tea. But they were mainly older. Not the 14-, 15-, 16-year-olds and others we usually see during the warmer months.
We went to see a few kids who’d called the coordinator during the day. “Do you need anything?” he’d asked and the answer was, without fail, a resounding yes. Things we, from privilege—and yes, we are privileged if we have a roof over our heads, food in the cupboard, blankets on our bed and electricity—shamefully take for granted. One girl requested “candles, food and blankets, please”. It was only the last word which astounded me. Despite coming from a home life most of us could not imagine, despite needing candles because where she was staying did not have electricity—which sends shivers up my spine as it is less than five minutes from my own home—she still managed to tack “please” onto the end of a sentence and be polite during our entire interaction. This girl I’d met before, during the warmer months, when she’d managed to find a place in a refuge. Her accommodation is so unstable that her suitcase lives in the coordinator’s car and he goes to meet her when she needs things.
“I met you a few months ago,” I told her.
She looked at me. “Sorry. I get high a lot. I don’t remember.” Then she turned back to the car and rifled through her suitcase to find her missing shoe.
Another girl, who again gave my naivety an electric shock, called us asking for food. She was not sleeping on the streets this winter. She was not in a refuge. She was not even bunked down with her street family in a hotel room or couch surfing with her friends. Oh no. She was staying with her parents for a little while. Parents so wrapped up in their own addiction issues that they were not providing food to their own child. Her home life was so unstable that this little one was forced to call us to ensure she’d get a meal. Sitting in the car outside her parents’ home, my heart just broke a little more.
We visited one of the major refuges for young people, which belongs to the agency I volunteer with. It is far from a hotel. With cracked walls and mismatching furniture, it’s a last resort for kids who would alternatively be on the streets or in jail. We pilfered some food and sheets (with permission, to give to kids who need them) and said hi to a few of the kids we knew—kids who were fortunate enough to have got a bed. But they are kids who bounce from the streets to friends’ houses to refuges—where they might get kicked out, or their time there expires, or they might chose to leave—and go back to the streets, to friends’ houses, to refuges. And it makes me wonder how we ever break this poverty cycle.
These kids are just like any other normal kids. Except they use drugs. And drink. And live out of a suitcase if they’re lucky. And they don’t have the support of a community because of The Stereotype. The Drop-Kick, Drop-Out, Dead-Beat, Useless, Worthless-Homeless-Culture Stereotype that we as a me-me-me culture impose on these kids. It’s a we-don’t-want-our-kids-to-associate-with-people-like-that, no-you-don’t-deserve-a-chance-because-of-where-you-come-from culture that makes the public housing towers of Waterloo exactly what they are. It makes it incredibly difficult for these kids to break out of the poverty cycle when they live in ghettos like that. It means these kids aren’t only up against adverse family situations, a low socio-economic status, difficulty obtaining work and education (it’s hard to do that when you don’t know where you’re going to be sleeping, aye), addiction and mental illness and lack of access to quality care. It means they’re also up against us, not giving them a chance.
And this means so much to me. It’s personal. And it makes me so angry. We have so much, we’re “the lucky country”—yet children, CHILDREN, are not afforded opportunity simply because of circumstances often out of their control. And most people won’t see the big hearts of these kids. Most people won’t know that my friend who is a youth worker got an SMS from one of her kids telling her she was an “angel” who was benefiting his life. Most people don’t see the appreciation of these kids when we give them a tin of soup and a donated bread loaf. Most people don’t understand what a big thing completing year 10 at school is for some of these kids.
I have written about this before, and I imagine I will continue to do so. While you’re warm in your bed, sitting in your heated office, taking a warm shower, cooking for the family, flipping through your textbooks for your degree, hanging off the fridge because you feel like something but there’s just too much choice, I’d encourage you to remember that there are young people in our own country who are not afforded these luxuries. Perhaps you’ve the money to donate to one of these charities which does so much work. Perhaps you’ve not the money, but the time to volunteer in a food van for a few hours once a fortnight. Perhaps you just want to understand a little more about this aspect of Australia we don’t talk about. All I hope I can do is encourage you to think as you’re walking down the street. And to look. And not judge. Maybe all is not as it seems.
This is an edited excerpt of a longer story, which you can read in full at Ella’s blog. For a list of agencies and helplines that support homeless young people across Australia, go here. For New Zealand, try here.
In Sydney, several charities do great work to help homeless and disadvantaged young people and they all rely on volunteers like Ella, as well as donations.
I applaud the philosophy of Father Chris Riley’s Youth Off the Streets: “We believe that in order to break the cycle of disadvantage, abuse and neglect, all young people need to be provided with the opportunity to achieve their full potential.”
The Salvation Army’s Oasis Youth Support Network offers education, training, jobs, counselling, drug and alcohol programs, food and accommodation.
Reverend Bill Crews’s Exodus Foundation provides food, showers, clean clothes, financial assistance, counselling and literacy programs.
(Heart image by Plismo, Creative Commons 3.0 license.)