We need to talk about youth homelessness in Sydney

By Sarah McKenzie

Today is Youth Homelessness Matters Day 2017. It's also Youth Week 2017. There's no better time to talk about the issue of youth homelessness in Sydney and all around Australia; an issue I passionately advocate must be addressed.

Every night in Australia, 1 in 200 people are homeless. The majority sleep in overcrowded dwellings, boarding houses, shelters, tents, makeshift structures or on the streets. Devastatingly, more than 40% of these people are under the age of 25. My friends could be among them. I could be one of them.

In fact, more than one of my close friends has experienced youth homelessness. It breaks my heart to think that people I love so dearly once slept in parks and couch-surfed every night because their own homes were too unsafe to live in.

Fortunately, the beautiful people I know overcame the toughest possible start in life and grew into the strong, inspiring, highly capable and independent adults they are today. This was largely thanks to the support of their friends and their friends' families, who provided food, water and shelter and encouraged them to attend school.

Not everyone is so lucky. There are approximately 26, 000 homeless youth in Australia, and more than half live in severely overcrowded dwellings because they don't have friends or family who can look after them. Many have had to flee their homes to escape domestic violence, family conflict, alcoholism and child abuse.

Providing care in all the colours of the rainbow

It's also common for homeless youth to be estranged from their families because of their sexuality. In early 2016, the ABC alerted us to the vast numbers of LGBTQIA+ youth turning to crisis accommodation centres for help. They remain disproportionately represented in the homeless youth population.

LGBTQIA+ youth also face greater obstacles in finding emergency housing and access to support services. Well-known organisations such as The Salvation Army and Wesley Mission have religious affiliations, and LGBTQIA+ youth are reluctant to seek help from faith-based charities who may condemn their sexuality or even turn them away.

And who can blame these vulnerable young people for being disillusioned, when in 2012 a spokesperson from The Salvation Army announced on the radio that gay people "should die"?

On the flip side, fantastic organisations like Sydney-based Twenty10 and Melbourne-based Minus18 are working tirelessly to provide crisis support and educational resources for LGBTQIA+ youth and their families.

I've been working closely with another amazing Sydney-based organisation called Stepping Stone House, which provides long-term accommodation, care, learning and development for at-risk youth aged 12 - 24; many of whom have been forced to leave home because of their sexuality and/or gender identity. Last year I wrote a media releaseto promote the non-for-profit's annual fundraising event: Help LGBTQIA+ youth shine bright at Stepping Stone House's annual 'Sleep Under the Stars'.

Stepping Stone House paves the way for transformational change

This year, I will continue to work as a marketing representative and media liaison for Stepping Stone House, promoting their 2017 ‘Sleep Under the Stars’ fundraiser in October across social media and in the press.

I'm also going to participate in the event in a hands-on way. The challenge: to build a sturdy cardboard shelter and sleep under the stars for a night overlooking the beautiful Sydney harbour, raising money to help Stepping Stone House support at least four extra young people for a whole year. Challenge accepted!

I love being involved with Stepping Stone House because I believe so strongly in what they do. Since 1989, they have been a home-away-from-home for youth who are unable to live with their families, providing not only basic essentials like food, water and shelter, but ongoing care, mentorship, counselling, life skills development and outdoor education.

What sets Stepping Stone House apart is their unique 'Stepping Stones to Success' program. They take in vulnerable young people not as a short-term solution, but to guide and nurture them throughout their entire adolescence. Residents live with carers and other young people as part of a dedicated family, moving through different levels of care, from 24/7 out-of-home care (12 - 18-year-olds), to semi-independent and independent living (18 - 25-year-olds) when they are self-sufficient and financially independent adults.

We need to build long-term solutions to address youth homelessness

A few days ago, the ABC announced that building company TOGA has opened up the empty Addison Hotel in Kensington to bring in youth off the streets. While this is a great initiative, the hotel will only provide shelter to homeless youth for one year, while the building waits approval for commercial development.

The question I ask is this: why aren't we building more long-term - not just short-term - accommodation and support services to bring youth off the streets in Sydney?

Homeless youth need long-term housing and care that is sensitive to their needs; safe havens where they are protected from the risk of further harm and abuse in overcrowded dwellings shared with adults. Women's refuges are generally a safer option, particularly for mothers and children escaping domestic violence; but 90% of women's refuges in NSW are full.

In 2014, the NSW government introduced a 'Going Home, Staying Home' reform to supposedly address domestic violence. Yet they also cut $6 million in funding for homeless shelters in Sydney, forcing several women's shelters to close or become amalgamated with larger organisations. For example, Elsie, Sydney's oldest women's refuge founded in 1974, was taken over by St Vincent De Paul and has since become a homeless shelter for both men and women.

While mixed shelters should certainly be available, they should not be the only option available for women and children fleeing from abusive households. At the end of 2014, 44 shelters in NSW were closed or taken over by larger organisations; shelters that catered specifically to women, youth and Indigenous people.

This isn't good enough.

Today, on Youth Homelessness Matters Day 2017 and every day, it's imperative that we talk about how to address youth homelessness in Sydney and across Australia. Just like the inspiring work of Stepping Stone House, we need to think of ways to give our young people in need a hand up, not a hand out.