This article is a repost, originally found on the Canberra Times website here.
Children without a safe place to sleep in Canberra are being turned away from shelters because they are too young. In 2019, and a city as affluent as Canberra, Justin Barker from Youth Coalition ACT says the problem might seem unbelievable. After all, services have been calling on the government to fix this “frightening” gap in crisis accommodation for almost 20 years.
But now, based off research and models in other states working on responses, the sector has a solution. Ahead of Tuesday’s ACT budget, advocates are calling for a suite of early intervention outreach and counselling supports for families as well as specialist short-term and longer-term “home-like” accommodation for kids from eight to 15 years old who can’t go home safely.
“This isn’t just a tragic story, a few kids off the rails,” Dr Barker said. “Youth homelessness is really about family violence and breakdown. These kids are doing what they need to do to survive.
That was certainly the case for Zharina, who has spent much of her teenage years couch surfing and staying at refuges in Canberra. Now 19, she told The Canberra Times having a safe place to sleep, supervised by workers who understood what she was going through, would have made all the difference when she first left home.
“I realised I had to get myself out,” she said.
“But it was really hard, I had to drop out of school, I couldn’t concentrate. I wasn’t getting much sleep.”
No one but those really close to me knew what was happening.
Those friends, as well as familiar faces at Woden Youth Centre, saved her life, Zharina said, supporting her while she waited to get into refuges and underwent two separate knee surgeries.
“There needs to be somewhere to go, at least while you’re waiting for a refuge,” she said.
An ACT government spokeswoman confirmed no services currently take in unaccompanied children under the age of 15 and most do not offer beds to those under 16. But. while some crisis accommodation is aimed at cohorts such as single men, most of the 350 beds in the sector are targeted at families, including children.
The problem, services say, is the assumption unaccompanied kids under 16 will be picked up by child protection authorities, who deal with abuse and neglect rather than homelessness.
“There’s this sharp divide between under 15 where there’s nothing for them and 16,” Dr Barker said. “We know [from the research] homelessness doesn’t start at 16.”
Most kids sleeping rough tend to “fly under the radar”, worried about being reported to child welfare or the police, he says, and those that do front up for support never make it into homelessness statistics.
“They’re invisible because we have no services, though workers try their darnedest to help them. “But we know there are kids committing suicide under 16 because there was no where else to go. “At the moment, these kids are no one’s policy problem.”
We have a list of unmet needs clients, most who are under 16.
Minister for Youth and Community Services Rachel Stephen-Smith said the government was working closely with Youth Coalition and others in the sector on a solution.
“We know that appropriate early intervention and support can significantly improve long-term outcomes,” she said.
“We also know that some families will break down even where help is available, and that we need to be able to support young people who disengage from their families and schools in a way that works for them.”
A respite service is now expected to begin from July this year, which will offer temporary accommodation designed as “short-term breaks [from home]…with the intention that families [then] resume care”. While this service will not be aimed specifically at children at risk of homelessness, it is understood they will be able to access it on referral from services and with their family’s involvement, though they will have to prove why other options weren’t suitable. At ACT Shelter, Travis Gilbert said most welfare support didn’t kick in until kids reached 16 and even then required parental permission.
“If you’re 15,16, Centrelink has to ask your parents if it’s unreasonable for you to live at home,” he said. “Some of these kids are fleeing really significant trauma.”
Last financial year, 1010 young people between the age of 15 and 24 were supported by Canberra homelessness services, government figures show. Two programs can help 15-year-olds into accommodation, while Conflict Resolution Service offers support and family mediation. Last year, it’s Family Treehouse program worked with almost 500 young people at risk of becoming homeless, recording an “concerning” 35 per cent jump in the number of kids below the age of 15 at risk.
While data on youth homelessness is still lacking, last year Debbie Noble-Carr interviewed local teens sleeping rough as part of research commissioned by the ACT government.
I remember picking, if I was gonna sleep at the night rather than walking.I’d prefer to walk, because then I was aware of who was going to attack me.
Family violence was the main reason kids left home,she said, and about half spent time on the street. Perhaps even more alarming, almost all young people involved said they had been in touch with lots of services and often still hadn’t been connected with a safe place to stay. One teen known as Poppy described fleeing a violent home after attempting suicide, only to be told to “suck it up and go home” by child services.
“People would listen to them and try to help but no one really seemed to understand how bad it was for them,” Dr Noble-Carr said.
I was gonna be on the street or do something to end my life because they were my only two options.
As the ACT pushes forward with an ambitious new justice reinvestment strategy designed to keep people out of jail, Dr Barker said a youth homelessness response needed to be at the top of its agenda.
“If you’re serious about stopping people hitting the justice system, this is where you need to be doing it,” he said.
“The prisoners of 2015 are young people now. This is exactly what the courts are asking for when there are kids under 14 they don’t want to send to Bimberi [youth detention].”
While he did not expect a fully-funded model in this year’s budget papers, Dr Barker said all sides of politics in the ACT seemed interested and he was hopeful there would be money set aside to scope out the project. After years researching youth homelessness, he said the most striking thing about young people sleeping rough was still their courage, their determination to stay safe. Dr Noble-Carr agreed saying: “These kids are homeless in the first place because they wanted a better life.” Zharina turned down an offer to move into social housing when she was of age because she didn’t feel safe, instead staying with friends.
“I wasn’t going to put myself in a situation where I could get hurt, it’s good for some people but not young girls and stuff,” she said. These days, she still moves between friend’s houses as she looks for work, but she’s started studying a certificate in childcare.
“I raised my little brother and I love working with kids, making sure they’re safe and happy,” she said.
“I guess I just want people to know not all of us on the street are really bad, we might seem like bad people but we can be good. We’re [scared], we’re not scary.”