Case manager Atak sees his younger self in the people he meets through Centacare’s Outer North Youth Homelessness Service.
Their stories take him back to the year 2000 when, aged 15, he began couch-surfing with friends.
After fleeing civil war in South Sudan, Atak, who has nine siblings, had recently migrated to Adelaide with his family when he left home in search of freedom and space.
He was instead confronted with the harsh reality of youth homelessness and its associated risks.
‘’I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t focus at school,’’ Atak says.
‘’Every day, getting up and moving from place to place, it was hard.
‘’There were so many more options back then, but I didn’t seek support because I didn’t know where to go.
‘’Now when I see clients struggling, when I see their helplessness, I know what they are going through, but I also know their exit options are limited – that’s the difference. It breaks me sometimes.’’
A decade earlier, in the mid-90s, family conflict forced colleague and fellow case manager, Rebecca, into homelessness at the age of 16.
‘’I went through Centacare as a client, when I was younger, but I didn’t know that until my file came up on the system when I started here as an employee,’’ says Bec, now aged in her forties.
‘’I went into public housing early. A few of the first places I lived in were the walk-up flats everyone talks about.
‘’There was a lot of substance abuse there. I used to think about the movie Train Spotting (in which a group of friends try and turn their life around amidst the allure of drugs), but I never felt peer pressure, I was always strong in that sense.
‘’Living there got me out of a difficult situation, so it wasn’t all bad. Some good things came from that time. I gained strength and resilience and met some amazing people who are still my friends today.’’
Bec, a mother-of-three, joined Centacare in 2021 and sits beside Atak in the Yorktown Rd office in Elizabeth where Outer North Youth Homelessness Service (ONYHS) is based.
The service provides case management, early intervention, outreach, post-crisis and wait-list support to young people aged 15 to 25 years who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, across the Playford, Gawler and Barossa council regions.
Between them, Bec and Atak are currently juggling a case load of more than 100 young people, including children.
The duo sometimes draws on their lived experience to offer clients hope in the absence of solutions that are becoming increasingly harder to find as the rental crisis worsens and the cost of living soars, exposing the chronic shortage of affordable housing.
‘’I think our lived experience is an asset to the team because it’s an example to clients of what you can do; we have been rock bottom before, but we have picked ourselves up into something,’’ Atak says.
He highlights the nine years he spent living in a caravan in Pinnaroo while working on a potato farm. It was here he found purpose and the determination to re-engage with education.
‘’I came back to Adelaide in 2009 to start university and went to Housing SA for help to find a place to rent and there was a social worker there who lifted my eyes across everything,’’ Atak says.
‘’She said `Atak, I can help you, but you also must help yourself.’’’
He uses the shift in perspective to empower resourcefulness in clients who are struggling to remain optimistic in the face of complex challenges such as poor mental health and a history of childhood trauma. These challenges compound their experience of homelessness.
‘’We don’t have a magic stick we can use to fix the issue so I say to clients, you are the driver, and I will sit as your passenger, and when I see a roadblock ahead, we will stop and assess together where we detour,’’ Atak says.
‘’I feel guilty sometimes that I’m adding to their pressures. Their mental wellbeing is often not stable because they are constantly thinking about their exit plan when they have limited capacity to find one, but we are asking them daily ‘have you done this or that?’’’
For Bec, journalling has become a way of “reflecting and reminding ourselves that as workers, we can only do what we can do, and unfortunately the issues are bigger than us.’’
‘’I share my story with clients if they are using their own challenges to define them and then it’s about pushing that limit to help them see there are good things beyond that,’’ she says.
‘’For me, I have my home life, but then I also went through quite severe domestic violence, and I have learning problems, with dyslexia, so there are lots of little things that might come up along the way with clients that I can relate to.
‘’A lot of the young people have a history of domestic or family violence, and there’s a big gap between people who can read and write as well, so it’s important to let them know they are not alone and that there is someone alongside them who cares.’’
Specialist Homelessness Services Collection data shows that on any night in Australia, 47,871 children and young people aged 0-24 have no home.
Each year, 42,615 children and young people (aged 10 -24) unaccompanied by a parent or guardian seek help from homelessness services.
In 2021-2022, ONYHS supported 482 clients.
Today is Youth Homelessness Matters Day, a national day of advocacy to raise awareness of the solutions needed to end child and youth homelessness.