As a student, you most likely consider your life stressful. Managing your weekly readings and assignments with work, gaining industry experience and maintaining some form of social life can be challenging. Imagine if your biggest worry was instead something greater, such as when your next meal will be, where you can find some clean clothes or where you can sleep tonight.
These struggles are an everyday reality for more than 40,000 youths, with one in four young people aged 12-24 currently homeless. Homelessness has particularly worsened in the Yarra Ranges, increasing by nearly 8% from 334 reported homeless people in 2011 to 360 in 2016.
These distressing figures stem from the National Conference on Youth Homelessness held on March 18-19. The Conference heard that in the past 10 years the issue of youth homelessness has drastically increased, despite a national plan of action and government initiatives being implemented.
Yarra Valley Homeless advocator and CEO of not-for-profit Holy Fools, Neal Taylor, believes the government needs to focus more on preventing youths becoming homeless, rather than dealing with the ramifications once they are already out of home. Some of the major circumstances causing young people to leave home are family violence and lack of early intervention and support.
“It’s like spending all their money on ambulances being at the bottom of a cliff after someone jumps off, instead of spending money on the services that would stop the person jumping in the first place,” Neal said.
Holy Fools focuses on lobbying government and council and advocating for changes in the way homelessness is addressed. Neal provides lunch for the homeless every Wednesday but also provides a listening ear, a place for these people to interact and form friendships and provides referrals to other services around the area. Neal also provides sleeping bags and takes people in need to various appointments as necessary.
He says youth homelessness is a huge issue in the Yarra Ranges and outer Melbourne areas despite it not being as visible as it is in the city.
“There is more youth homelessness in the Yarra Ranges than in the city. It is less visible here because there are less rough sleepers, the issue lies in those stuck couch surfing and living out of their cars”, Neal said.
One of the recommendations from last Monday’s conference was that state care be extended to house youths until age 21.
Drawing from his experience in working with homeless youths, Neal believes extending state care past the age of 18 would also be a positive step.
“There is no transition into society for kids who’ve grown up in state care. These kids don’t even know how to do the shopping or have any basic budgeting skills. Centrelink doesn’t want to consider a person independent until age 21, whereas state care deems them ready to tackle the real world at age 18. There’s this huge discrepancy and kids are left in desperate situations, without money, without basic life skills,” Neal said.
He also believes having trained professionals in schools to detect family violence situations would be beneficial in addressing issues before the kids leave home.
Neal’s advice to youths who aren’t experiencing homelessness themselves is to be open and willing to help and provide a listening ear for others who may be struggling at home.
Because of what they see as government inaction, local volunteers and community organisations in the Yarra Valley have taken it upon themselves to address the issues of homelessness in the area. The Mustard Tree Café and Op Shop in Lilydale raises money through sales of clothing and recycled household goods to fund a Food Bank in the main part of Lilydale. Locals who are struggling are able to make an appointment with The Mustard Tree where a volunteer meets with them to assess their situation, provide referrals to other specialist organisations in the area and can provide up to a week’s worth of food from a Food Bank hamper. The shop also holds a community lunch each Tuesday and supplies bread for people to take as needed.
The Mustard Tree manager Kathy Vincent said the community meal was held on premises in the café rather than at a hall or other venue so those in need didn’t feel like they were being separated from the rest of the community.
The not-for-profit also has a computer technician come on a Tuesday to provide computer literacy skills to a variety of individuals, teaching them how to search and apply for jobs.
The shop also willingly provides clothes to homeless people and has a free shower service available.
“If someone is in need of food for their children we also make sure they have enough clothing and can provide enough clothes to get them through a few days thanks to the donations we receive,” Kathy said.
She said she probably washes about five to six towels per week used by the homeless who use the free shower service.
A positive step in preventing youth homelessness comes with the Federal Government’s announcement to establish a Youth Health Hub and Headspace Mental Health organisation in Lilydale which will allow young people to address any issues they may be having at home.
Yarra Ranges mayor Tony Stevenson said the hub was “most welcomed, as it will ensure young people in the Yarra Ranges will have access to local mental health services that will improve and save lives” however there was still much to be done to lower the amount of youths without a place to call home.