Wonder Walls

HOW FOUR WALLS CAN PREVENT YOUTH HOMELESSNESS

As teenagers, our bedrooms were precious. So much more than a place to rest our heads at night, they were our studies, our retreats, our havens, our identities. Remember yours? What you had on the wall. Where your bed was. The view from your window. Your desk stacked with homework, used plates and glasses, magazines and countless CDs or tapes – right next to your boom box, Discman or iPod. If you were lucky, your room was filled with the things you loved – the things that defined you.

Some aren’t so lucky. For many young people, the privacy of four walls to themselves is a luxury they don’t have.

That’s an estimated 44,000 young people without a safe place to sleep every night. Yet, we don’t often associate homelessness with young people. The media portrays Australia’s homeless as down and out adults, unlucky in life or struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse. In reality, nearly half are young people who feel they have nowhere else to go.

Worse still is the lack of adequate support services available. Jo Swift, CEO of Kids Under Cover, a youth homelessness prevention organisation, says, “these days, while there are some opportunities for young people to find a bed for a night, they’re likely to be in shockingly inappropriate accommodation.” The boarding houses available to homeless young people tend to house much older people who are potentially with mental health, dependence and trauma issues. For many, homelessness is borne out of the tragic circumstances of a family breakdown, so such accommodation can unnecessarily expose them to a different life path. “Being a teenager is a difficult enough time,” says Jo. “But when your family is in turmoil or crisis, there is overcrowding, there’s a lot of conflict in the family home; it’s a cocktail that can lead to a catastrophic event for a young person.” Like becoming homeless.

You’d be forgiven for being unaware of the gravity of the issue. After all, Australia’s homeless youth are largely invisible. “These are kids who don’t have their own voice,” says Jo. “They can’t vote, so they can’t politically influence anybody.” And often they don’t fit the stereotype. They’re rarely seen sleeping on city streets, camped out in tents in a public park, or in refuges and shelters. Instead, many homeless young people bounce between friends’ couches or cram into overcrowded accommodation. They usually still go to school and keep up with everyday activities – all while struggling with the challenges of homelessness, like lack of sleep and inability to focus on school work. On first glance, you might not even be able to tell anything is wrong.

In 2016, over 6,000 young Victorians who sought homeless assistance were couch surfing.

Staying for short periods on couches or floors of friends and relatives is the most common way young people first experience homelessness. It’s also unsustainable. “The opportunity to stay at any one place runs out pretty quickly,” says Jo. Rather than having a space of their own, they occupy someone else’s; walking on eggshells as they ask for favour after favour, never knowing when an arrangement is going to crack and leave them with nowhere to go.

If a young person couch surfs one night, they’ll likely do it again, for longer periods. That’s because homelessness is not a singular event. Paul Stolz, a researcher completing his PhD in overcrowding and youth homelessness at Swinburne University of Technology, describes it as a pathway.

It’s not from one night to the next where [they become] homeless,” Paul says. “There’s a gradual progression.”

A few nights become a week. One week becomes two. Weeks lead to months. Over time, eroding connections with family, friends and school. The most important step, Paul says, is to acknowledge when a young person has fallen onto this path.

Ken Morgan founded Kids Under Cover because of his first-hand experience with homelessness. After growing up in a crowded home with seven brothers and sisters, Ken found himself hitch-hiking to New South Wales to escape a turbulent home life. . Like many people with similar stories, he finds it difficult to explain.

“I feel it inside emotionally, you know, you can’t describe it to anyone else,” he says.

After leaving home, a police officer found Ken sleeping in a park. The officer told him he could either continue on the path to homelessness or go home and “make something of himself”. As a teenager, Ken made the tough decision to return home, reconnect with his family and find a job. This was a decisive moment in Ken’s life; one that compelled him to help create similar turning points for others.

One of Ken’s first Kids Under Cover projects was a house for Tina*, a young girl who was living in a car. “I wouldn’t forget that house,” he recalls. “I took Tina* in and said, ‘this is your bedroom’, and she said, ‘I never had a bedroom of my own’. We’ve come a long way from helping one kid. Now we’ve helped over 3,000 of them.” Today, Kids Under Cover focuses on building more studios. Designed as one or two-bedrooms with a small bathroom, in a family’s backyard, the studios give young people space while keeping them close to their families.

Aliesha Newman is one of over 3,000 who received a studio. The now AFLW star and her sister, Tegan, were teenagers when their mother, Noraine, took on the care of two siblings aged 1 and 3. The children had been removed from their father’s care by the Department of Health and Human Services after the death of their mother. Three years later Noraine also began fostering a 10-day-old baby. Their three-bedroom family home was at capacity. “We had Maya* in the laundry, mum and the baby in the lounge room. Madison in her own room and Tegan in her own room,” Aliesha explains. Tegan was completing VCE at the time and needed her own space. Aliesha, who had recently finished high school, shared a wardrobe with her mother. Shoes lived wherever they landed. And cleaning was virtually impossible, because, “as you cleaned someone would come in and, just like that, a tornado hit.”

The situation escalated. “The kids both have ADHD,” Aleisha says. “It was really hard sometimes when they got vocal and physical. Like trying to cope with school at that time or go to [football] training and be normal... it was kinda difficult.” She says every family moment was made more challenging by their lack of space. “You look back at it now [and think] how did we ever get through that? But it was just normal for us.”

Unfortunately, overcrowding is the norm for many families, and a major trigger for youth homelessness.

Yet it’s hard to define or quantify, because everyone sees overcrowding differently. If you grew up in a happy, secure and safe family environment, but had to share your bedroom with your sibling, you mightn’t consider yourself a victim of overcrowding. But when families experience misfortune – death, an emergency, loss of employment, financial insecurity or mental illness – they feel an increased need for physical and emotional space to cope.

Psychologist, Sabina Read, believes this type of uncertainty is one of our greatest human challenges. “When we live with unpredictability or instability we tend to be on high alert,” she explains. “This impedes our experience of much needed quiet, calm and peace.” In other words, when you couple hardship with limited space, it’s easy – especially for young people – to feel overwhelmed. This can then exhaust emotional and physical energy reserves. “Thereby hijacking our ability to attend to other healthier pursuits like sport, friendships and learning.”

According to Sabina, this can be what starts many on the path to homelessness. “Without a space of their own, teenagers may choose to spend more time away from home,” she says. “They may also seek other ways to numb out, including drugs or alcohol, when they feel out of control or unsafe.” Substance abuse is just one of the many symptoms of youth homelessness.

Associate Professor David Mackenzie, one of the authors of the study, writes, “For every young person who becomes homeless there is an average net expenditure of almost $15,000 per person per year on health and justice services.” Why is this? Youth homelessness often intersects with other issues, like illness, using medical services and becoming victims of violence and assault. It’s also common for homeless young people to develop mental health issues. The longer someone spends on the streets, the more likely they are to suffer.

This is why prevention is so important.

When things reached boiling point for Aliesha and her family, Kids Under Cover helped ease the pressure. For two years, she and Tegan made themselves at home in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom studio built in their family’s backyard. Like all of the organisation’s purpose-built studios, the space was life-changing for the sisters during a time of crisis. “[The studio has] given us our own space,” says Aliesha. “[Before] we had a 10-year-old, 6-year-old and 2-year-old running around, you’re not going to get much sleep in a house like that. It was great to be able to go ‘alright, night mum’ and go straight outside.”

Like a regular bedroom, the studios give teenagers a sense of order and calm during the most chaotic time in their lives. “The security and safety of a private studio can help send the message to young people that first and foremost, they matter,” says Sabina.

Before the installation of a studio, Kids Under Cover found 96% of young people felt they ‘never’ or only ‘sometimes’ had the space for alone time. After living in one, that figure dropped to 10%.

A studio does more than provide space. It gives young people a sense of control, independence, identity and does wonders for their education and study. After moving in, teenagers like Aliesha have more time to pursue their interests and plan for their future– which is exactly what she did.

Aliesha painted one of her walls and stuck a poster of her favourite AFL team alongside a whiteboard that proudly displayed a rotation of inspirational quotes. It was an important visual reminder of the future she dreamed of, and now had the mental space to think about. Today, she’s living her dream of playing in the AFL Women’s league, just like the poster on her wall.

There’s a lot we can do right now to tackle youth homelessness, like shifting our focus from cure to prevention. Ken says it takes one simple act. Reaching out to someone in trouble to show them they’re not alone. “Never ever give up the idea, that you can’t save a kid,” he says. “Because you can.”

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A studio does more than provide space. It gives young people a sense of control, independence, identity and does wonders for their education and study. After moving in, teenagers like Aliesha have more time to pursue their interests and plan for their future – which is exactly what she did.