Future Generation Australia supports Youth Off the Streets’ indigenous programs. Can you tell me a bit about those programs?

One of the programs is embedded in the six independent high schools that we run from the Central Coast down to the Wollongong region. Through the ASPIRE program, we provide First Nations students with practical support to navigate high school, as well as an opportunity to connect with their cultural identity and build resilience. This has proven benefits for their education outcomes.

We also do a lot of general casework with First Nations young people. We use the Dr Tracy Westerman Aboriginal Symptom Checklist to assess students, which helps us determine tendencies towards suicide. Unfortunately, this is quite prevalent in First Nations people. We then respond – or refer these students on to specific services – in ways that are culturally appropriate and develop their cultural resilience.

Then there’s our youth justice work, which involves supporting young people involved in the juvenile justice system or Youth Koori Court. We also run an intervention program through Orana, which is a juvenile justice centre for young people out in Dubbo, where we educate young people on drug and alcohol rehabilitation. We facilitate a similar day program up here in Sydney for young people recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

Those are some of the main programs that we operate, so really our work takes us anywhere from the Central Coast down to Wollongong. But we are looking to utilise the FGX (Future Generation Australia) funding to build a larger footprint in regional New South Wales. We’d start with Dubbo as a base, and then look to roll out our programs from there to support First Nations young people in regional areas.

When you speak about cultural safety and resilience, what do you mean?

A lot of First Nations young people haven’t grown up in their culture so it’s about building understanding of their culture and traditions, and making them feel proud and safe to hold onto those traditions. Sorry Business offers a very clear example of this. When a First Nations person passes away, there is a period of mourning known as Sorry Business, where relatives are required to undertake cultural practices and may behave quite differently. For young people in mainstream high schools, it may not feel culturally safe to undertake their Sorry Business in a way that is true to themselves and their culture. Another example is that when one of our First Nations students acts out at school, we are very diligent about ensuring that our response is culturally appropriate. For example, there are male and female guidelines that we follow. We’re very privileged that we have an Elder, Aunty Pat, who works with us as part of the Youth Off The Streets team. She’s a wealth of knowledge for us, as well as being a wealth of support for these young people.

There’s obviously been a lot of press coverage about the impending referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament. Has Youth Off The Streets been doing any work on that?

Before the Voice was even an item on the political agenda, Youth Off The Streets had a program called Walking Together, which was developed by two of our key facilitators. The program comprises of a core workshop, using the Uluru Statement from the Heart as a framework. I should stress that it’s not a political workshop. It’s purely an education workshop that takes members of the community through the journey of why reconciliation is so important. It helps us understand where we have come from, what First Nations people want, and why it’s important to have this conversation.

We also have a ‘Train the trainer’ program, aimed at participants who have completed the Walking Together educational workshop and want to become a trainer or presenter of the program. Trainees are provided with resources and support to facilitate educational sessions within their own networks and communities. To date, we have trained more than 12,000 volunteers in the workshops.

So why is recognition so important?

To me, it’s about recognising our history and working together to ensure we have a balanced, fair playing field for all Australians, including First Nations people. We’re on a journey now, and my hope is that we take the path towards healing by giving First Nation Australians a clear voice in what happens to their people and culture. I guess my big fear is that it all becomes really political, when to me it should be about understanding our history and healing the wounds of the past.  In essence, it’s about Australians walking in unity.

Looking at Youth Off The Streets’ operations more broadly, we’re going through a period of high inflation and rising interest rates. How is the cost of living and housing affordability impacting youth homelessness?

There is homelessness and there is the risk of homelessness. And all those factors you mentioned are going to push the cohort that is at risk of homelessness into actual homelessness. Rents are skyrocketing, there’s a lack of affordable housing, there’s a lack of crisis accommodation and there’s a lack of transitional housing, especially for young people. One thing we are trying to advocate for is a standalone strategy to end youth homelessness. Young people make up around 24% of all homeless Australians, but there is a lack of direct funding and infrastructure to support them. As an example, we have a young person who is in transitional housing in Merrylands in Sydney, and her rent just got doubled. How does a young person accommodate for that when they’re still trying to go to school, hold down a part-time job and they have no dedicated guardian?

What would a standalone homelessness plan for young people look like?

It would need to invest in better early intervention programs. How do we help young people manage domestic violence situations? How do we help them build up their mental health and resilience? How do we help them to stay in high school? How do we help them keep a full-time job?

It would also need to invest in more and better infrastructure. We need more affordable homes for young people, whether that’s group homes or individual care homes, and we need to make it easier for under-18s to access that housing. At the moment, a 17-year-old can’t even get into affordable housing because they can’t legally sign off on the documentation. There are a lot more hoops for them to jump through in order to access the basic necessities of life, so that needs to be looked at too.

You’ve spoken about how the cost of living is impacting youth homelessness. Is it also impacting your funding, as donors tighten their belts?

Absolutely. That’s the case not just in Australia, but also internationally. We’ve seen through our own experience – as well as through various surveys – that there has been a drop-off in donations. There’s far more hesitancy among donors because they are obviously trying to meet their own expenses.

I should be clear that it’s not just the individual donors who are having to tighten their belts, but our corporate donors as well. So yes, it’s having a big impact on our fundraising.

If everyone is looking at things from an economic perspective, we should perhaps point out the strong economic case for addressing youth homelessness?

Yes. Youth homelessness costs Australia $626 million a year across the youth justice and health services systems alone, which is a huge amount. On top of that, when you’re homeless, you’ve got fewer employment options, it’s far more difficult to get your driver’s license, and you become more disengaged from education. They’re the three things that you need to have for someone to be employed and contributing to society.

Research also shows that even a brief episode of homelessness puts children and young people at risk of further experiences of homelessness and disadvantage later in life. So there is a strong moral and social case for investing in ending youth homelessness, in addition to the economic case.

I’m guessing that for Youth Off The Streets, as with other not-for-profits, volunteer numbers are also down?

We are lucky because we have a really loyal volunteer base of around 350 people, especially for our Street Walk, Food Van and school programs. What we’re low on is new volunteers and requests to be volunteers. That is a concern. People these days just don’t have the time. Grandparents are now looking after grandchildren, parents are looking after children and their own parents. People are having to work longer hours and some people need to take on second jobs. Life has become far more busy and we are all really time poor.

At Youth Off The Streets, we are really focusing on how we keep our volunteers engaged so that they feel that they’re part of a great organisation that’s doing great work. And we’re also looking at how we attract more volunteers. Is it through our corporate sponsors? And if so, how do you do that so it’s a little bit different?

You’ve been the acting CEO of Youth Off The Streets since Lex Lutherborrow left last October. What have the biggest challenges been?

I only started at Youth Off The Streets in July last year; my background is in local government. So I guess the main challenge was learning about the not-for-profit sector, understanding the complexities of homelessness, and getting up to speed on the way we operate our schools, our casework outreach and the whole suite of services and programs that we deliver. It’s been a very steep learning curve! It was like cramming 10 years of experience and knowledge into a few months so that we could continue to deliver in the way that we needed to deliver for young people experiencing disadvantage.

The other big challenge – and I think this is the case for all not-for-profits – is funding. The way not-for-profits are funded creates a lot of instability within your workforce. All your programs and services are funding dependent, yet the funding itself is not long-term. So when you’re engaging your team, you have to say, “We really want to take you on to run this great program in youth justice support, but we can only offer you a 12-month contract because we actually only have funding for 12 months.” That’s a real challenge for us.

So how important is multi-year funding of the kind that Future Generation provides?

It’s critical! It’s critical from a staff resourcing point of view in terms of attracting the best talent, it’s critical in terms of achieving positive outcomes from programs, and it’s critical in terms of giving our young people the certainty that yes, we’re going to be around next year – and the year after that – to support them.

It’s also critical when it comes to strategic planning. You need to know where you’re going to invest to grow. But how can you do that if you don’t have certainty of funding? It’s like Dubbo. We want to grow our footprint there, but everything like that comes with a cost!

For more information, visit Youth Off The Street’s website

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