Youth homelessness is at an all-time high in Australia, with close to 30,000 homeless 12-24 year olds making up 24 percent of the homeless population. Of these young people who are experiencing homelessness, only 3 percent are sleeping rough on the streets and visible to society. The other 97 percent are largely hidden and go unnoticed – staying in severely overcrowded dwellings, boarding houses or supported accommodation sites, sleeping in cars and caravan parks and couch surfing at friend’s houses.
Youth homelessness rose 26 percent between 2006 and 2016 and has continued the upward trend since then. Domestic and family violence, relationship/family breakdown and housing crises are the main reasons young people become homeless.
Chief Executive Officer of Hope Street Youth and Family Services (Hope Street), Donna Bennett, says youth homelessness looks very different to the stereotypes that come to mind when one thinks about homelessness: ‘most young people who are experiencing homelessness can’t be found sleeping rough on the streets or begging for money. They look and present just like any other young person, and are often couch surfing at friend’s houses or sleeping in their cars’.
‘Unless you dig a little deeper and know which questions to ask, you may not even realise that they don’t have a safe place to call home,’ Donna says.
One of these youths experiencing homelessness is Sian,* a 23 year old mother of three. Sian is no stranger to the realities of homelessness. Growing up in Melbourne, she spent years moving around, changing schools and in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services due to her mother’s long-term drug addiction, and the many issues that came with that.
‘We [Sian, her mum and her two younger siblings] were homeless from when I was aged 7 to 13,’ Sian explains. ‘We lived in refuges and hotels. I’d watch my mum line up in the street at the Salvation Army from 6 o’clock in the morning hoping to get a bed to sleep in that night’.
Sian says her mother would often take off for weeks at a time and leave her with three young siblings to take care of. ‘At the age of 13 I wasn’t doing what normal kids are doing, I was raising my brothers and sisters’.
When Sian was 16 years old, her mother left Sian and her siblings and didn’t return. Not long later Sian found herself pregnant, aged 17. ‘I was badly depressed when mum left and was seeing a counsellor,’ she explains. ‘I was physically ill and throwing up every day, then I discovered I was pregnant’.
Sian says that having her own unborn child to focus on allowed her to let go of the disappointment over her fractured relationship with her mum, who eventually ended up in prison for drug-related charges, and was still there when she died of kidney failure in late 2018.
After initially being taken in by her partner’s parents, then living in transitional housing, Sian had no rental history to support her in her attempts to rent her own place. She was facing the threat of homelessness again early last year, while pregnant with her third child, and was referred to the Hope Street First Response Youth Mobile Outreach Service by a Melton City Council housing worker. There, she received support with transport to attend rental inspections, and to find a place of her own – a three-bedroom house, located five minutes away from daughter’s school.
The instability of her upbringing has given Sian a strong resolve to do the best she can for herself and her children. Although she missed out on many of the basic privileges afforded to kids growing up in Australia, she does not see herself as a victim, nor does she think it should shape her future, or her children’s’ possibilities.
‘There are a lot of young people out there who don’t have parents who teach them life skills,’ Sian says.
‘I never knew how to look for my own house to rent; my mum only ever showed me how to go to SASHS [Salvation Army Social Housing and Support]’.
While for now she is focused on caring for her youngest baby, Sian has bright hopes for the future. Having already completed the first year of her apprenticeship as a chef, she is keen to return to cooking once her youngest is in kindergarten. And her biggest dream? To transition to a new career that gives her more time with her kids: baking birthday cakes.
‘At the end of the day, my kids are my end goal. Anything they need comes first. As a kid, they didn’t ask to be born, you chose to have them so you have to raise them in the right way. They’re counting on you to become good little humans’.
Sian was assisted by Hope Street’s First Response Youth Mobile Outreach Service that’s been in operation in Melton since June 2018. The program was developed by Hope Street in partnership with The Ian Potter Foundation, who have provided a generous grant towards it.
To help people understand that youth homelessness in Melbourne doesn’t look or feel like stereotypical portrayals that are often used by the media, Hope Street compiled a video clip that shows images of young people who are experiencing homelessness and receiving support through Hope Street’s programs. Click here to view the video.
Hope Street is fundraising for the purchase of essential items for young people who are experiencing homelessness, including clothing, food, emergency accommodation, Myki public transport passes and toiletries. Click here to make a tax deductible donation. To get in touch with Hope Street, please contact Olivia Myeza, Business Development and Partnerships Manager, on 0401 473 923 or via email to Olivia.firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Name changed to protect identity.