What do young homeless people and the Woolly Bear caterpillar have in common?

November 23, 2015

James Townsend is the manager of the Inner West Youth Homelessness Service. At the one year celebration of the newly formed service, James delivered this speech to great applause:

“I want to tell you two stories. I want to tell you about one of our young people and how working in our new partnership has changed the way we worked with this particular young person. And I also want to tell you a story about a caterpillar.

The Woolly Bear is a caterpillar living in the Northern Arctic. During the winter, the temperature is between -20 and -80 degrees Celsius. In the summer, the woolly bear’s job is to go out and eat as many leaves as it can so it has enough energy to hibernate, make a cocoon and turn into a butterfly, OK it actually doesn’t turn into a butterfly it turns into a moth, and flies down south to warmer climates. But, this isn’t the interesting thing about the woolly bear, the interesting thing about this creature is that more often than not it doesn’t get enough food, sometimes for winters on end… and it freezes… freezes solid right through. When summer comes, the woolly bear thaws out, comes back to life and goes back on its way eating leaves again trying for another season, and this is why I have so much respect for the woolly bear because of its amazing resilience.

I also want to tell you a story about Sally. Sally was 16 when one of our outreach case workers first started working with her. She was at a school, near one of our offices, and we started working with her as she was having troubles with attendance and her teachers were worried about her using drugs.

After working with Sally for a few weeks we found out that she didn’t have a stable place to stay. She was very resourceful and would move around in overcrowded relatives’ houses, or stay on friends’ couches, often not knowing where she would be the following week or even that night.

This is often the case with our young people, and homelessness can be hidden. Sally never thought she was homeless. She was just making do, getting up and going to school.

One night sally had nowhere to stay, so her case worker brought her into our crisis refuge. Sally stayed here for a few months and in this time she really flourished. Her attendance and marks at school got better as she didn’t have the stress of where she would be staying that night or in a week’s time. She also found a passion for helping others and volunteered her time for community fundraising.

Sally moved into another service with the help of her case workers and continued her education.

About six months later we established the Inner West Youth Homelessness Service, and this meant we could design services to be flexible and meet the needs of young people like Sally. With our partners YWCA NSW and Wesley Mission we set out to establish programs that could meet the needs of our young people, be flexible and ensure young people received the best opportunities.

Sally and other young people helped us design these programs; they told us what worked for them and what didn’t. Sally came back into our services and has moved from transitional accommodation to more independent accommodation, she has completed her education and she is still pursuing her passion of helping others next year she will apply to go to university to become a nurse.

Changes to the way we deliver services has also meant we can intervene earlier to support young people and stop them entering our housing programs so they can stay at home, with family or someplace safe where they can flourish. Our programs provide opportunities for young people to flourish and discover their passions.

The North Arctic is nothing compared to the challenges our young people face, I want to thank our staff for walking along side our young people when they need it most. And, I want to thank our young people in all our programs for their unrivalled resilience, for teaching us, and showing us how challenges should be faced.”

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