Fighting for all young people without a home

Young homeless people fear nothing will change, writes Veronica Penna.

Recently, as a member of the Premier’s Advisory Council on
Homelessness, I had the honour of speaking at the launch of Youth Homelessness
Matters Day 2010. The theme of this year’s Youth Homelessness Matters Day was ‘Countdown,
Everyone Counts’, which was picked to highlight the many different experiences
of young people who become homeless.

A really cool
demonstration of this idea was a massive surfboard next to a couch
(representing young people who are couch surfing) that was on display at the
launch.  For me this made the very
true point that people who are ‘couch surfing’ often go unnoticed by government
and society.  When people think of
youth homelessness they think of people who are sleeping out on the streets.
While this is a very real problem that needs to be fixed, it is important that
the other experiences of homelessness are not forgotten.

Couch Surfing

When you are couch surfing you have a roof over your head,
but that is about all.  You do not
have somewhere that you can call home and you are often left with no support
networks at all.

As a ‘couch surfer’ you have absolutely no sense of safety
and security as at any stage your temporary shelter can be taken away from you.  Naturally friendships come and go and
if you happen to be living with a friend it can place enormous strain on your
relationship. Your friend or other person that you are staying with temporarily
may also come under pressure from their other housemates or family to make you
move on. When you are staying temporarily with friends or other family you also
have little motivation (and indeed support) to attend school or to be out
looking for jobs.

For me, I found my period of couch surfing to be incredibly
depressing and stressful. In a lot of ways I believe it can be so much more
stressful than living in a refuge. When are living in a refuge you are given
the support of a caseworker and taught important life skills. You also have
‘your own bed’ that you know whether you are in a crisis refuge or in
short-term accommodation, you will have for at least 3 months.

A voice for the voiceless

As I mentioned at the start of this article, I am a consumer
representative on the newly formed New South Wales Premier’s Advisory Council
on Homelessness. As part of this role, I and the other members of the Council
provide direct advice to the NSW Premier Kristina Keneally on issues to do with

So that other people have experienced homelessness have a
chance to have their say, the NSW Government has also set up the Consumer
Advisory Council, a group which is made up of 11 people who have been or who
are now homeless.  The role of the
Council is to conduct consultations and surveys with people on the street to
make sure the NSW Government also hears their voices.

The Consumer Advisory Council has members from Sydney,
Newcastle and Nepean regions.  It
also has on it 4 young people who come from very different experiences of
homelessness. Importantly, a couple of the young people who are on the group
also have young children. This is a group that often looked down upon or placed
in the ‘too hard basket’ by government and other groups.

Recently, the Consumer Advisory Council and I held a series
of consultations in Sydney to find out the ideas of people who are homeless
about the kinds of services currently being offered to them and how they could
be improved.  Just in one-day, we
were able to get the ideas and thoughts of over 100 people!

Speaking to groups of homeless young people was a great
opportunity for me to reflect about how far I have come and how lucky I have
been to find secure housing. Having obtained housing is the best thing in the
world. It has made me able to feel comfortable and safe as well as giving me a
platform for all my other achievements.

But I also found the views of some of these young people
particularly confronting.

For me it was really hard to see the lack of hope among the
people I spoke to, particularly about whether the NSW government will do
anything to help them in their situation. While they were all helpful and
provided great ideas, their attitude was that nothing was going to change.

At times I feel exactly like the young people I spoke to as
part of our consultation. I worry that nothing will be done to help all young
people who are homeless- no matter their experience. However, I am now in a
position where I can raise issues affecting young homeless people straight to
the government. While I can’t promise that change will come, I can promise to
be the best voice I can be for all young people who are in the unfortunate
position of being homeless.

Veronica Penna is a member of the NSW Premier’s Advisory Council on
Homelessness. She is also a member of Street Care, the first advisory group in New South Wales that is made
up entirely of people who have experienced homelessness. The group was
established by and receives on-going support from the Homeless Persons’
Legal Service (HPLS)*.

* The Homeless Persons’ Legal Services (HPLS) is a joint initiative
of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Public Interest Law
Clearing House. PIAC receives core funding for HPLS from the NSW
Attorney General, the Hon John Hatzistergos, through the NSW Public
Purpose Fund and project support for a homeless consumer advocacy group,
StreetCare, from the City of Sydney.

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