Young and alone

Photo by Cleona Mirdin
"I had to couch surf, squat in houses. I even sleep rough sometimes.” Cleona Mirdin reports on increasing youth homelessness.

When Christopher found an empty corner in an alleyway at Flinders Street, he thought it a good spot to sleep for the night. He could not have known he would be attacked and stabbed by three assailants he had never encountered before. Only when he noticed the blood on his shirt, did he realise he was badly injured and his flesh was torn. This is just one in a series of brutalities he says he has experienced in well over a decade since he left home.

“I didn’t realise my back was badly hurt until I saw my blood,” Christopher says. “I felt a chunk of flesh was missing. I thought it was going to be a decent night. I always try to keep to myself and I try to find a place where nobody can see or disturb me.”

The 24-year-old has long been exposed to violence. He says he was just 10 when he left a troubled home.

“I’ve been on my own ever since. I had to couch surf, make money for accommodation, squat in houses. I even sleep rough sometimes.

Christopher says he has taken steps to mend his relationship with his mother, has written to her and visited the family home but learned to rely on himself for survival.

The Australian Bureau of Statistic (ABS) reported in a report based on the 2016 census that family and domestic violence is a primary reason for homelessness. It also reported that homeless youths under 25 have totalled more than 43,500, 32 per cent of them  living in extremely crowded dwellings. The report indicated that more than 116,000 people are homeless.

The ABS noted that the number of homeless youth is underestimated during the census count. This was because some homeless youths aged 12-to-24 were temporarily visiting during census night.

Another factor was an unknown number of couch surfers who may not want to reveal to the people who indicate in the Census form that they are unlikely to go back home.

For these reasons the ABS is unable to find a consistent method to estimate the count for how many homeless youths are staying at different households.

The Australian Health and Welfare Institute (AHWI) announced in its annual Specialist Homelessness Services report that 42,131 homeless youths aged 15-to-24 had presented alone when seeking support. They identified domestic and family violence as the main reason for fleeing their homes. However, the AHWI report only surveyed those who seek assistance.

Although there is an under-representation of homeless youths are living in Australia, the numbers are still staggering and many young Australians are lacking support.

Melanie Raymond is a social researcher and the chairman for the Youths Projects, a charitable institution that provides counselling and support for people undergoing complex issues of unemployment, homelessness, alcohol and drug related issues.

Raymond says, “I would have looked for reliable data the same place as everyone, but the census needs to be the definitive data set. There is also a great divide between the definition of youth, so you might get the common age group. But we’re wanting to know what’s happening to smaller subsets too, between 12 and 21. That’s the data that’s missing.”

She also says that there is a misconception that surrounds youth homelessness. She says people are unaware of how complex and deeply rooted the challenges they face are.

“They come from very specific backgrounds; from the poorest suburb, poorest household. But violence at home, that happens everywhere. They might face persistent unemployment and homelessness from a young age which might cause drug dependency and mental health issues. There is a particular pattern.”

Tom Ruijs, manager for fundraising and community engagement for the Lighthouse Foundation, agrees that homeless youth face complex challenges.

The Lighthouse Foundation provides homeless young people from backgrounds of long-term neglect and abuse, with a home, a sense of family, and around-the-clock therapeutic care that is individually tailored, trauma informed and proven to work.

Ruijs says one of the reason homeless youths fall into substance abuse is because they have not learned “healthy coping mechanism”. They come from traumatic and abusive environments and were forced to grow up without people that model good behavior.

“Often they’ve been thrown into an adult role way too early, which does something to your development, your view of the world and your way of coping with things,” Ruijs says. “Substance abuse is one of the ways that is used to numb it, because it’s too much to take on.”

Every now and then Christopher needs to “take his drugs to keep him from feeling depressed”. This may not be an ideal way to cope with depression but it is his way to endure the seclusion.

“I’m not a junkie, I’m a user. I don’t do it because I like the feeling of the needle or the high. I do it because I don’t want to feel sad and unwanted. I want to block it all out,” he says.

Lauren Eudey, a youth worker and the Manager of the Victorian Schools Program at The Salvation Army, agrees that domestic and family violence is the greatest driver to youth homelessness.

“Domestic violence is significantly the highest factor that causes youth homelessness,” Eudey says.

She says that mental illness, substance and alcohol use does not “lead” to homelessness but are the “result “of homelessness.

Eudey stresses that not many youths know how to access support. That is why she worked with a range of schools to help spread awareness about these supports and the misconception of youth homelessness.

She also organises the Hidden Others short film competition. It aims to raise awareness around the hidden nature of youth homelessness.

“We have a youth homelessness film competition,” Eudey says. “It keeps us on spreading awareness but, most of all, gives the youth the chance to express their creativity and be heard.”

Christopher finds it helpful to speak to someone. At times, he finds it difficult being alone. He tries to be around his close ones.

“It’s a big complication,” Christoper says. “Sometimes when I am alone, I start crying. I need someone to talk too. A lot of us aren’t getting heard and being pushed away. I will always try to help the younger ones. We try to stick together. We’re like family. A family is where you … feel wanted.”