Australia’s homeless children: ‘We’re easily manipulated’
When Rachel was 12 years old, she saw her father murder her mother. Traumatised, she ended up homeless.
Melbourne, Australia – Rachel* was just 12 years old when she saw her father murder her mother.
She became a ward of the state and was placed in a government-run residential care home, where she lived alongside other children and young people – many of whom had experienced similar trauma.
Despite being from the rural town of Shepparton, where her grandmother also lived, Rachel was placed in a care home 192km (119 miles) away in Melbourne.
“They moved me from Shepparton to Melbourne with no phone and I wasn’t allowed to contact my family, nothing,” said Rachel, who is now 19.
She explains that, rather than being a place of safety and stability, the home exposed her to other troubled young people, and her life began to spiral out of control. She says many of the other people in the home were committing crimes.
“They put you in a house with criminals and expect you not to become a criminal,” she said.
“That’s when I started my criminal activity and drug use,” she added. “[This] became an everyday thing, it was normal life.”
“I was so angry at the world so I went and broke into a bottle shop and then I got done for an armed robbery and I found myself at the police station.”
Rachel was released on bail, but when she was caught breaching her bail conditions, the criminal charges against her started to mount.
Eventually, she was sent to Parkville Youth Detention Centre, but rather than providing an environment that helped to rehabilitate her, it simply allowed her to meet more young people who were involved in criminal activities.
When she was released, she was put into an adult refuge, but she found the conditions there “disgusting” and left.
Instead, she slept in her car, at friends’ houses or in temporary accommodation.
“[Being homeless] is so s***,” she said. “You don‘t know where you’re going, you don’t know where you’re sleeping.
“You’re living day-to-day. You’re not really thinking about the next day, you are just focusing on today because you’ve got to focus on what you’re eating, or how you are going to get money for this, or where you are going to sleep.”
Rachel says that homeless young people are especially vulnerable and that young women face a heightened risk of sexual abuse and rape.
“An old man isn’t as vulnerable as a young person,” she said.
“We might be younger and healthier, they might be a little bit ill, but we are more vulnerable. We’re easily manipulated, we’re easily led to do things, we’re easily pressured, we’re easily intimidated.”
The crisis of homeless youth
Each night in the state of Victoria, about 6,000 other young people share Rachel’s experience of homelessness. Yet, many remain invisible to the wider community because, like Rachel, they often sleep at friends’ houses, in cars or in temporary accommodation, rather than on the streets.
Nationally, two out of five people experiencing homelessness are children and young people, many of whom are escaping domestic and family violence.
LGBTQ youth are also highly represented within the homeless population, with many running away from families who may not accept their gender or sexual orientation.
According to the youth homelessness organisation Kids Under Cover, children and young people experiencing homelessness are less likely to be attending school or able to get a job.
Like Rachel, many homeless youths will become involved in criminal activity with research demonstrating that the earlier a young person enters the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to be imprisoned as an adult.
A recent Victorian government inquiry into homelessness also found that prolonged homelessness as a young person is a strong predictor of homelessness in later life.
As such, the inquiry made a range of recommendations regarding homeless youth, including the need for more early intervention, and better funding for support services such as youth foyers.
‘How can you go to school when you’ve got nowhere to live?’
Renee Peterson is a team leader at Vincent Care, an organisation that provides services to homeless youth. She is also Rachel’s case manager.
Renee began working in the sector due to her own experiences, becoming a mother at the age of 17 and moving around in temporary accommodation with her first child.
“I didn’t have an easy childhood,” she said.
Renee says that youth homelessness is often underpinned by domestic violence, trauma, alcohol and drug use and sexual and physical abuse.
Like Rachel, most of her clients are involved with child protection, foster care and residential care, and many are from marginalised groups, such as the Indigenous, African or Pacific communities.
Renee agrees that stable accommodation is the first step towards resolving the complex needs of homeless youth. She also says that education is key, describing it as a “protective factor” for young people.
“[But] how are you expected to go to school when you’ve got nowhere to live?” she asked. “When someone becomes homeless they are not engaged with education because they are wondering where they are going to sleep.”
She says young people who are committing crimes and using drugs should be a “red flag” to the system, signalling that they have not had fundamental care and, like Rachel, have experienced childhood trauma.
Renee says that instead of punishing children and young people with prison terms, they should be supported to resolve their trauma and find their feet as adults.
Renee also agrees with the Victorian government inquiry that youth foyers are a viable and long-term solution to youth homelessness.
Foyers are a type of managed accommodation centre adjacent to a number of support services, which not only provide long-term accommodation, but also assist young people to access education and training and be supported by counselling.
Such foyers generally have 30 to 40 beds for young people and have communal areas where they will learn social, financial and other life skills in order to prepare them for independent adulthood.
The Foyer Federation states that their model is underpinned by a “deal” in which young people are “expected to actively engage in their own development and make a positive contribution to their community”.
This “deal” “empowers young people to take ownership of their future and to make lasting personal and social change”.
In Australia, the foyer concept is relatively new, with only 15 currently in operation. In the United Kingdom, where the model has been adopted since 2008, there are 135.
It is a model that Renee fully supports.
“[The foyers] are awesome,” she said. “They’ve got independent living but they’ve also got [an] on-site case manager, they’ve got group work, they are engaged in education, they’ve got counsellors there. It’s a wraparound support.”
Yet the foyer model has struggled to gain traction in Victoria.
When asked by Al Jazeera about solutions for young people experiencing homelessness, Minister for Corrections and Youth Justice Natalie Hutchins pointed to a 3.4 million Australian dollars ($2.5m) initiative to build 50 studios “to provide safe and secure accommodation for young people at risk of homelessness”.
Such studios are not related to the foyer model, and are, instead, small rooms built at the back of the home of a family member or carer.
This provides the experience of independent living yet allows the young person to still remain connected to and supported by their family.
While these studios may offer a solution for young people who still maintain good relationships with their parents, family or guardians, Renee says they do not address complex and long-term homelessness cases like Rachel’s.
“What about people who are homeless or come from child protection or youth justice?” asked Renee.
“Young people are often turned away from other services because their needs are too complex.”
Reflecting on the homelessness inquiry’s recommendation to build more foyers Renee also said, “That’s great – there needs to be more.”
“However those foyers need to have specific beds for marginalised youth, who are often stigmatised and not prioritised.”
Back in prison
When she spoke to Al Jazeera, Rachel had been renting a transitional house for just three weeks with the support of her case manager Renee, and had enrolled in a hairdressing course.
“I’m doing so much better than what I would of if I didn’t have a house,” she told Al Jazeera.
“When you’ve got a house you’re relaxed. You don’t have that pressure, or that stress, or that worry. At the end of the day, you’ve got a bed and a roof over your head and that’s all that matters.”
Yet despite being housed, Rachel was back in prison soon after the interview – this time in Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, which is Victoria’s women’s prison for adults – due to a breach of parole from a previous custodial sentence.
By the time she was released, Rachel had lost the transitional house and ended up being homeless again.
According to Renee, Rachel is now living with a violent partner as she feels she has no alternative.
Renee also says that Rachel’s situation is now compounded as legally she is an adult and cannot access youth services.
Renee says there is less organisational help for adults than young people, and that without help for Rachel’s trauma, it is likely her homelessness and criminal behaviour will continue.
“Housing is only band-aiding the problem,” she said. “If someone’s homeless but we don’t address the root cause of the homelessness – trauma – and they are not linked to support services, the problematic behaviour continues.”
*Name changed to protect her identity.
This series was supported by the City of Yarra.