Without a foundation

After family breakdown led to Chelsea being kicked out of home, she spent years couch surfing, missing out on school and battling the effects of trauma.
Chelsea's couch surfing story - Emergency youth accommodation
The tension at home had been getting worse. When the situation eventually reached breaking point, Chelsea was kicked out by her stepmother.

She was 13 years old. It was the middle of the night and she had nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help. Alone and afraid, she called the police.

“I was waiting on the side of the road at 3:00 am for the police to pick me up,” Chelsea recalls.

“The police officer who arrived turned out to be the stepdad of one of my classmates. He said I could stay with them.

“I’d left the house with nothing,” she continues. “A few weeks later, my brother secretly let me into my dad’s house to grab some of my belongings – clothing and some baby pictures because I didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to go back.”

Chelsea stayed in her friend’s spare room for about three months. The family helped her apply for Centrelink support, but it was nine months before she started receiving payments. The financial stress she was under prompted Chelsea to try and reconnect with her mother.

“My mother struggles with mental illness, which brings its own challenges. Staying with her wasn’t working out, so I had to find somewhere else to stay.”

Chelsea shifted between people’s houses and various refuges for four years, between the ages of 13 and 17.

“I can’t even remember all of the places I stayed – there were so many,” she says.

Sometimes she would stay in someone’s caravan, share a room, or sleep in a spare room if one was available. Often the only option was a couch.

Sometimes she would be able to stay for a night or a week; if she was lucky, it would stretch to a month or several months.

“At the time, I would use people’s home phones to call the numbers I’d memorised to ask if I could stay. Or friends would ask other friends for me.”

She lived in a state of constant fear and vulnerability.

“There were never locks to keep me safe,” she recalls.

“In some of the accommodation I stayed in, there were men who tried to take advantage of me in my sleep. I’d yell or scream to get them to leave. It got so bad that my grandmother gave me a rape alarm – just in case. Unfortunately, I had to use it.”

If she was staying somewhere long-term, Chelsea would attend the local school.

If it was short-term, she would usually skip – with no certainty about where she would end up next, it was impossible to know where to enrol.

When she had no other options, she’d travel to her best friend’s family home – a long trek from the train station.

“There were times I’d walk an hour and a half in the rain and turn up on their doorstep, just to have somewhere safe to sleep for the night,” she says.

There were days when Chelsea couldn’t afford food, so she’d ask her friends to help her get groceries.

Her mental health broke down – she became depressed and started self-harming.
In her darkest moments, she turned to alcohol to numb the pain.

It was during this volatile time that Chelsea was introduced to Youth Off The Streets by another young person living at the same refuge in Sydney.

She joined Key College in Redfern, where she successfully completed the Year 10 Life Skills course.

After years of couch surfing and living in temporary accommodation, Chelsea moved in with a friend’s family and then lived with her boyfriend’s parents.

“For years, it was like I was missing a foundation. The floor beneath me was constantly moving, and I didn’t know when it might collapse.”

“I had to dodge so many obstacles to survive. It should be simple, but I had to think, ‘Do I have money to buy food? Do I have a roof over my head tonight? Will I be safe where I’m staying?’

“Every day was different. Some days I’d have more security than others, but I never had everything I needed.”

It took a lot of effort to repair the ‘foundation’ and get to a place where she felt secure.

“When I finished Year 10, I wanted to get my own rental place and start college,” Chelsea says.

She started college and moved into an apartment with her boyfriend.

“It was a terrible experience,” she says. “He isolated me from everyone I was close with.

One night, he violently abused me and left me with physical disabilities.

”When I woke up after blacking out, he wasn’t home. I grabbed my things and left.”

Chelsea had been rebuilding her relationship with her mother, so she went to her – feeling broken and scared – and asked for her help in going to the police.

She took out an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) against her ex-boyfriend and eventually found another apartment on her own, but she felt isolated for some time afterwards.

“During that relationship, I lost the connections I had built,” she explains. “I used social media to connect with friends in the area. Eventually the right people came around, and I rebuilt my friendships.”

By overcoming her own trauma, Chelsea says she’s learned how to cope with challenging situations. Today she supports others through her job in recruitment, which helps people who have experienced difficulties find employment.

She also studied to become a Mental Health First Aid Officer and joined a union to advocate for employees who struggle with their mental health and experience workplace bullying.

“I’ve gone through a lot of counselling and have built up my emotional intelligence,” Chelsea says.

“People take having a roof over their head, food and a support network for granted.

“Now, I’m more empathetic and understanding when other people are limited with their resources. I can help them navigate their way forward.”

Teenage girls and young women made up 64% of the total number of homeless young people in Australia last year. Join us in standing up against youth homelessness this April. Sign up for The Great Couch Sleepout now.

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