Mike was turned away from crisis accommodation because he was not old enough. (ABC News: Adam Kennedy)
‘The new weed’: Children as young as 10 are using ice and living on the streets in Canberra
Homeless children in Canberra claim they have been told to “suck it up and go home” by child protection services, or turned away from crisis accommodation because they are too young to be granted assistance.
- Only children over 16 can access crisis accommodation in Canberra
- Report hears children as young as 12 face homelessness
- Calls for targeted residential care for children under 16
That was a situation Mike (surname withheld) found himself in at the age of 15, when he was forced to rely on a high school friend’s family for a bed each night.
“If it wasn’t for them I would be on the streets and probably dead by now,” he told the ABC.
Now 19, Mike said he was grateful to the family that stepped up and took him in, but it was not a place he was able to live long term.
He tried to find other options but said he was denied crisis accommodation for homeless youth because he was aged under 16, and said Child and Youth Protection Services would not help him “because it wasn’t the worst circumstances in the world”.
“There’s not really any support for kids under the age of 16, which actually really disappoints me,” he said.
“Because there’s a lot of kids out there who are 13 and up who live in the city.
“They just live on the streets. It’s kind of sad. They’ve got no support out there.”
Mike said when his 16th birthday eventually rolled around, and having been homeless for the best part of a year, he suddenly became eligible for support.
He lived in several refuges over a couple of years, and said at times he felt terrified and unsafe — even fearing for his life at the hands of much older people who also lived at the refuges.
But he eventually ended-up at Canberra Youth Residential Services, where he finally felt at home.
Mike said he was now living in safe, independent accommodation and had nearly finished his studies.
Violence, abuse, neglect a volatile mix
Debbie Noble-Carr heard many stories like Mike’s in the process of compiling a report on child homelessness for the ACT Government.
“About half of the children we spoke to ended up having to spend time on the streets because they had run out of options and they simply had nowhere to go,” she said.
“Some of them had had intervention from care and protection authorities, but that hadn’t resulted in them feeling safe.
“A lot of these children had lived in homes that had violence, abuse, and neglect.”
Dr Noble-Carr said one young woman, given the name Poppy, recounted a harrowing story of homelessness and neglect after fleeing a home full of verbal and physical violence.
“I got to the stage where I was self-harming pretty badly … and then I attempted suicide,” Poppy said, according to Dr Noble-Carr’s report.
If you or anyone needs help:
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt so desperate.
“I was gonna be on the street or do something to end my life because they were my only two options.”
Poppy said she was repeatedly dismissed by providers when she sought help.
“Care and Protection pretty much said … ‘You need to suck it up and go home because you don’t have any other option’,” she said.
Another girl described being alone and vulnerable as a child living on the streets after dark.
“I would never sleep under a street light or anything, because I thought I was more likely to be attacked,” she said.
“I remember a couple of nights, people would come up to me, ask me if I’ve got a lighter or a cigarette or stuff.
“Then they’d get all scary and violent and I’d think, ‘Holy shit! How am I going to fight these people?'”
Others said they left abusive homes at the age of 13 with nothing but a suitcase of clothes, lacking any money or anywhere to sleep.
Calls for targeted residential care
Only children over 16 can access crisis accommodation in Canberra. (ABC News: Stephanie Anderson)
Executive director of the ACT Youth Coalition, Dr Justin Barker, said child homelessness in the ACT was an “invisible” issue because many children affected try to stay under the radar.
He said to address the problem solutions were needed that began with outreach and prevention.
And case management, counselling and therapeutic services needed to be available to children and their families at the earliest possible opportunity.
“It would prevent kids who are having early indications of family conflict or other risk factors from even entering the homelessness system,” he said.
“It’s really looking at the needs of these young people and children and seeing them as being nestled in the context of their family, and making sure the needs of everyone who is supporting them are being addressed.
“It’s not thinking of them as someone who is transitioning to independence. They’re a child.”
Dr Barker called on the ACT Government to establish temporary residential care dedicated to children, providing respite while they worked towards safely reintegrating into the family home.
He said longer term “home-like environments” were also needed for children who could never go back to live with family.
There are plans to turn unused spaces like this into refuges for children. (ABC News: Tahlia Roy)
ACT Minister for Children, Youth and Families, Rachel Stephen-Smith, said she could not confirm whether any specific changes or responses had been implemented following the release of the ACT Government commissioned report last year, saying it was a work in progress.
“There is still some work to do to understand the existing service system, and particularly to align the existing service system to the needs that have been identified,” she said.
“We’re still doing the evidence-based work to see what model would be most appropriate for the ACT.”
Ms Stephen-Smith said a project to enhance early support was underway.
“[It is] looking across the service system and saying how do we identify families, including families in that middle years bracket, who are at risk of the child becoming disconnected,” she said.
But said it was a piece of work being looked at, not a service currently available to children experiencing homelessness in the ACT.
The ACT Community and Services Directorate was contacted for interview.