“It’s nobody’s childhood dream to become homeless,” says youth worker Vanessa Virgato.
But homelessness is not decreasing, with family breakdown, loss of job, or loss of a relative common factors, said Virgato, Boroondara Youth Liaison, with 23 years experience working with disadvantaged, homeless young people.
People who are victims of violence, sexual assault, have a drug problem, and are suffering from mental health issues are at risk of homelessness. Yet young people are not educated to deal with these situations, she said.
“There are lots of young people that don’t know how to access help.”
Kerrie Loveless, team leader of Yarra Youth Services, said: “Homelessness often brings many risks. You are at risk of violence, sexual assault, and illness.”
Loveless said those at risk may have come out to their families, or have a migrant or refugee background, so have no extended family or community support.
“When other risk factors are present, people are likely to experience homelessness, or certainly housing pressure.” she said.
Homelessness Australia, which said a financial crisis was a common reason for homelessness, estimates that 105,237 people are homeless in Australia, with 42 per cent aged 12 to 24.
Erik Ly came to Australia from Vietnam at age 11 with his family. At age 16, when he came out as transgender and his family did not approve and wanted to change him, there was a high risk of him becoming homeless, he said.
“I had to move out because of the issues. I was rejected for who I was, and forced to conform to their expectations.
“It wasn’t easy, I didn’t take it lightly. The hardest thing was trying to find support. I didn’t know where to go, where to look or what to do.”
Now in a better situation, he wants to raise awareness for those who faced what he did.
Virgato said friends were the first resort, but eventually those at risk end up couch jumping until they have no one left to stay with – an extremely unstable situation. They often ended up on the streets in their own suburb.
“I don’t think that putting a roof over someone’s head necessarily solves homelessness.”
Nor does it mean their housing is safe and secure. Many boarding houses and shelters are unsafe, Virgato said. “They need to be managed by professional youth workers, and there definitely needs to be more crisis accommodation.”
Loveless said, “The demand for beds greatly outweighs the provisional support. They are full every single night.
“It’s hard, if someone comes into the centre and says they have nowhere to sleep. The chances of getting them somewhere to sleep is slim.”
When Virgato visits schools, the stereotype around what a homeless person looks like is evident, she said.
She shows the students two photos, one of a dirty, unshaven man, with ragged clothes, and everyone instantly chooses that picture – but the homeless person is actually the other photo.
“What does a homeless person look like? They look like you and me.”
Loveless said it is not always obvious that a young person is homeless and cited the example of three young people who visit Yarra Youth Services and have experienced homelessness: “If you didn’t know that about them, you wouldn’t have guessed.
“They always make an effort to present themselves in a certain way. When you don’t have a home, or a family, all you’ve got left is your pride,” she said.
“Homelessness doesn’t discriminate, we like to think that people who’ve grown up with money never experience those things, but that’s not true.”
Virgato said donations of money and clothes helped and both she and Loveless advocated making a connection with homeless people.
“Just be kind, it doesn’t cost anything,” she said.
Loveless said, “Don’t just talk about it to your mates, advocate to the government what you think should change. Talk to someone who is homeless, just say, ‘hey’. Talk to someone for five minutes, build a connection with them, help them to not feel isolated and unworthy,” she said.
“Not everyone has a happy ending, but the services that are there work really hard to break that cycle for young people and often they succeed.”