Youth homelessness: a personal story

People between the ages of 12 and 24 make up 25% of Australia’s homeless population.

I have been made homeless twice in the past fifteen months and I am not the only one.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Census of Housing and Population (2011) revealed there were 26,238 homeless people between the age of 12 and 24. They make up 25% of Australia's homeless population, with women experiencing domestic violence and sexual assault making up the highest proportion of this age category.

Young people from refugee backgrounds are six times more likely to become homeless, which explains why, as a refugee woman under the age of 25, I was destined to be homeless.

We live in a society that blames homeless people for their situation. It is as if people choose to live in situations where they have no control over their lives, where they are completely alienated from society and blamed for their dire situation.

I fled the abuse of my family's last year home hoping I could be housed with dignity. We live in a rich country so that did not seem such a wild idea.

In my first call to the homelessness line, I was told I could choose from various refuges around NSW to flee the violence I was experiencing.

Knowing there is a place out there that could be my "safe haven", as the domestic violence counsellor called it, was a soothing experience. I desperately wanted a safe and supportive place away from my so called "home" — a hell hole where I experienced death threats and physical, psychological, emotional, social and economic abuse and where I was kept under close surveillance of my “rebellious” socialist and atheist ideas.

I started spending days at a time in my room, without the appetite to eat even one meal a day. The threats continued and I felt I could not stay one week longer in the house. I had just begun work experience in the hope of getting a job and becoming financially independent.

One day I pretended to go to work experience, grabbed some important documents, my photo albums and my diary notes of the abuse and left. I called the homelessness phone line and said: "I need to go to a refuge today!".

After waiting a while, I was offered a place in a nearby suburb. When I said I was worried about its closeness to where my family lived, I was firmly told that it was “what's available, either take it or not”. I took it.

Before going to the shelter I was advised to report the violence to the police. I walked into the police station and asked for a female officer from the Domestic Violence Unit to take my report, but I got a male officer. I managed to get an Apprehended Violence Order but while I was at the police station, the shelter called to say the room was not ready for me. The homelessness line booked me into a nearby motel for one night.

That night in the motel was cold, dark and scary. My whole world had turned upside down. By 10am the next day I was on the street, homeless, traumatised and completely alone. I remember sitting on the street crying on the phone to a counsellor. I did not know where I would go from there and was terrified I would be found by my family in those familiar streets.

In the afternoon I went to the shelter for an interview. Exhausted, sleepless and in dirty clothes, I was asked to sign the visitor book. When I held the pen to sign I saw my sister's closest friend's name as the last visitor before me. Later I found out the young woman was also homeless and had been offered a spot at the only women's house managed by the shelter.

For the time being I was offered a small apartment that is usually only given to women fleeing violence with children, not to a homeless youth as I was quickly categorised. Plans to move into the female youth house were halted when I refused to move in with someone who was in regular contact with my family. I retained my spot at the “bed sitter”.

At the shelter the 8–10 homeless youths attended “living skills” workshops where we were told how scary and hard life will be once our time expires at the shelter. One of the workshops was about rentals. We were told: "The market is bad. Housing is very expensive and you will not be a priority if you apply to Public Housing as there are people far more disadvantaged than you. You should practice living on $50 a week."

I remember thinking I should not have left my family's house and that I should go back there because nothing seemed scarier than what awaited us from extreme poverty and social alienation. Shelter privileges, like getting a weekly Oz Harvest supply — some expired meat and old fruit and vegetables that Coles and Woolies deemed unsellable — would not be available to aid us once our 18-month maximum stay was over. We would only get to keep tricks like learning how to keep and eat food that has expired, which did not seem enough to ease the financial hardships ahead. I remember another young woman expressing the same worry. But we could not undo homelessness and abuse and just “go back”.

The scariest moment in my stay at the shelter came later, when I started contacting my family and visiting them under extreme emotional pressure and as a result of alienation at the shelter. I soon got a “quick chat” from the centre manager. She remarked that "parents can piss us off sometimes, but you have a bed there" before telling me to leave within seven days.

Being doomed to poverty by the government's poverty allowances, young people like me and others living in homelessness are unable to find independent affordable housing easily. The Australian Council of Social Service's Poverty in Australia Report 2014 reveals that the poverty line for a single adult is $400 per week. This makes Centrelink's $433.20 fortnightly Youth Allowance (for those living away from home) 46% below the poverty line. Young people on Newstart are not much better off.

Young people face constant attacks by the government, high rates of unemployment, the punitive job search system, cuts to homeless shelters, as well as cuts to youth mental wellbeing programs like Headspace.

As young people, we need to organise and campaign for our basic human rights. We should not let racist governments spend billions of dollars on brutalising refugees and building submarines. We should fight for a government that treats youth, women and refugees in a humane manner — one that redirects money into making our lives better, not worse.

[Aliya (named changed) is a member of Resistance: Young Socialist Alliance]

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