My name’s Gary and I manage our crisis outreach service for Youth Off The Streets called Street Walk. On most nights I travel around town providing vital support to homeless and vulnerable kids in Sydney’s CBD and the Inner West.
Every kid is different in what level of help they need, but our support usually ranges from providing food, finding safe accommodation, drug and alcohol support, medical care, police support and access to legal services.
My team do whatever we can to provide the support these kids need so we can get them to safety.
I’ve been working for Father Chris for over 20 years now and I was a youth worker for YOTS during one of the biggest crises to hit the world in that period of time: the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008.
When the GFC hit, youth homelessness increased significantly with more young people who were vulnerable or homeless staying out on the streets.
They were out there due to the added financial and emotional strain at home that can cause increasing rates of domestic and family violence, relationship breakdown, unemployment, barriers to education, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health issues.
That was 12 years ago and since then we have worked hard to support homeless and vulnerable kids to reduce that number. Up until a few months ago, we were seeing some success.
But since the start of this year, the numbers have been climbing and in March, it was 50% more than the previous month. An increase like that is a sign we have another crisis on our hands. I saw it back in 2008 and unfortunately I’m seeing it now.
In March, before the lockdown, I started seeing more young people sleeping rough in the CBD: mainly around Town Hall and Central stations. They were hanging out in groups under CCTV cameras for safety and unable to social distance as a result.
But they do it because staying at home isn’t an option for these kids if it’s not safe there in the first place.
And when everything is closed: youth centres, outreaches, playgrounds, even schools – they have no safe place to turn to.
Being ‘forced together’ at home also escalates issues like domestic and family violence. So since lockdown, I have been providing a lot more police support to young people than usual.
Dealing with misinformation about COVID-19 is also a challenge – homeless kids don’t have easy access to the right resources to stay safe and they can be mistrustful of authority.
One instance was a couple of weeks ago when a child protection agency asked for assistance from me to get a teenaged girl to safety while the city was in lockdown. She’d been homeless on and off from a young age.
This girl was sleeping at a train station, had drug and alcohol issues and was pregnant.
Quite a few government agencies had tried to help her, only for her to be back on the streets soon after. She didn’t want to be placed in foster care and wasn’t aware there were rehab services available for young people.
These agencies reach out to me and my team quite often because homeless kids around Sydney know me and trust me more than most adults.
The girl eventually agreed to go to hospital, and for me to find her crisis accommodation. She also enrolled in our Dunlea drug and alcohol program. She’s liking it and feels much safer.
A lot of other non-YOTS services have suspended face-to-face support, while we have adapted our service delivery and continued essential services throughout the lockdown.
Homeless and vulnerable young people simply don’t have access to resources that would allow them to receive support online, so we have to continue our work on the streets, reaching out to them.
When you’re one of the few services still out there on the streets delivering crisis support, there’s naturally going to be an increased demand as more young people need essentials like food, clothes, blankets, toiletries and of course, access to crisis accommodation and many other support services.
I’m preparing my team for what’s ahead because we expect an influx of young people on the streets after lockdown is lifted – it will be a similar situation to the GFC, or it could be worse.
But what we know, is there are going to be more young people who will need a whole range of support. And essential services like Street Walk will need more financial support so we can meet that increased demand and help young people in need for as long as it takes.