Young and alone

Chris Schneider wakes up early every day trying to make money so he doesn't need to sleep in the streets for the night. Photo Cleona Mirdin.
More young people are fleeing home but exclusion from society still traps them. Cleona Mirdin reports.

When Christopher found an empty corner in an alleyway at Flinders Street, he reckoned it was a good spot for him to sleep for the night. But what he was not expecting was being attacked and stabbed by three assailants that he had never encountered before. Only when he noticed he was bleeding from his shirt, did he realise he was badly injured and a piece of his flesh torn. This is just one incidental series of brutality Christopher has experienced in his 17 years living rough.

“I didn’t realise my back was badly hurt until I saw my blood, I felt a chunk of flesh was missing,” Christopher says. “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 disturbs me.”

Unfortunately, the 24-year-old has long been exposed to violence. Instead of growing up in a physically safe and nurturing environment, he says he was the victim of family violence, and was forced to leave home at the age of 10.

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

He says he also taken steps to amend his relationship with his mother. Despite this, his mother has shown no signs of accepting him back.

“For 13 years, I write to her and I went to the house. She won’t open the door,” says he.

After enduring an abusive childhood, he had to rely on himself for survival.

Christopher is part of an increasing number of homeless youths living in Australia. He is a key example showing a pattern between domestic and family violence with youth homelessness.

The Australian Bureau of Statistic (ABS) has reported in its 2016 census of Population and Housing: Estimating homelessness report that family and domestic violence is the primary reason for homelessness. It also reports that homeless youths under 25 have totalled to more than 43,500 and 32 percent of them are living in extremely crowded dwellings. The report indicates more than 116,000 people are experiencing homelessness.

The ABS claimed that the number of homeless youth is underestimated during the census count. This is because some homeless youths which the ABS categorised as either 12 to 18 years or 12 to 24 are temporarily visiting during census night.

The other factor is couch surfers, who may not want to reveal to the people who fill 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 underrepresentation for how many 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 individuals 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 to 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.

“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 faced 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 falls into substance abuse because they have not learned “healthy coping mechanism”. They come from traumatic and abusive environments and were forced to grow up without people that models good behaviour.

“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.”

Christopher says the same.

Living without support and alone has led him to further complications. Every now and then, he needs to “take his drugs to keep him from feeling depressed”. This may not be an ideal way to cope with depression but 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,” says he.

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.

She 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,” Christopher 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 are friends with, mixed with and where you feel wanted.”