Centacare’s specialist youth homelessness service, Carlow Place, is building young people’s confidence around meals so they not only provide nutritional benefits but emotional nourishment as well.


For most of us it’s a source of pleasure, but eating a meal can have the opposite effect for young people living homeless.

If food is linked to trauma, even snacking can be more painful than hunger.

“People might think why don’t they just eat something if they’re hungry but it’s not as simple as that,’’ says Tina Breen, Senior Social Worker at Centacare’s Outer North Youth Homelessness Service.

“A young person’s attitudes towards food and eating habits provide valuable insight into their emotional needs and the experiences that led them to living out of home.’’

It’s not just food that a child takes in as nourishment from a very young age, it’s the care and love that goes with it, Tina says.

Young people who have never internalised this kind of experience will therefore have a different understanding of food and the social aspect of meal times.

“Children who have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect are usually very anxious in relation to food because of the feelings and triggers it evokes,’’ Tina says.

“Some children may eat very little or they may binge eat, often on junk food, as a way of self-soothing. This is usually a substitute for the kind of reassurance they would receive from a parent.’’

In recognition of this, Centacare has adopted a trauma-informed approach to food at specialist youth homelessness service, Carlow Place.

The aim is to support young people to build a positive relationship with food so that it not only provides nutritional benefits but emotional nourishment as well.

Case study – Carlow Place

Located at Elizabeth, Carlow Place provides emergency and supported accommodation for eight young people aged 15 to 18 years who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness.

At Carlow, meals are adapted to suit individual emotional needs. For example, food may be provided as `take away’, enabling a young person to eat at their pace in their own safe space.

Alternatively, they may choose to participate in a voluntary cooking and dishes roster which was recently introduced to encourage social interaction.

Young people have input into the menu and take turns to cook and clean up each night under the guidance of a therapeutic youth worker. This enables them to interact and connect in new ways, and empowers them to make their own choices in a safe environment.

“Seeing the food assists to reduce anxiety about what’s in the food. It is also a good opportunity to learn about nutrition, develop cooking skills and experience the pleasure in providing a meal for others,’’ Tina says.

“Having regular meal times adds structure to a child’s life and reduces anxiety. It is also a good opportunity to set clear expectations around behaviour and to create a sociable, home-like atmosphere.

“The structure, routine, and consistency involved in cooking a meal also helps young people to feel safe which in turn gives them confidence to make their own decisions, in a supported environment. This is conducive to trauma informed care.’’

On Friday and Saturday nights, creativity and independent living skills are nurtured by encouraging young people to cook using only leftover ingredients.

Every day, lunch bags and snack packs are provided to encourage young people to eat at school and off-site, stay hydrated and forge a positive relationship with food.

“The young people love it and are showing more enthusiasm when they have to attend daily activities,’’ Tina says.

“Providing young people with something they can eat at the start of the day helps them feel nourished physically, socially and emotionally and can determine how the rest of their day goes.’’

Snacks are also available onsite, on request. This helps connect the provision of food to positive relationships with others.

Food is also used to diffuse negative emotions, says Tina, and can be as beneficial as a hug from someone they trust. Offering a simple drink or snack can help alleviate pain, anxiety and even anger.

“If a young person is distressed, handing them a hot chocolate that can be held and sipped and is warm and sweet is very comforting.

“One of our youth social workers is a fabulous cook and often bakes cakes and makes soup.

“This is very much like a grandparent type of role modelling that many young people have never had. They all identify how nurturing it is and verbalise how much it means to them.’’

*This week we are marking Homelessness Week (August 7-13). The national campaign aims to raise awareness of the experiences and challenges faced by people living out of home. The theme of this year’s week is ‘Action and Innovation‘ and we will be highlighting some of the ways we are supporting young people to stay safe, remain connected with their communities, and build their independence. Centacare provides specialist youth homelessness services, and accommodation support for women and children experiencing domestic violence, in regional and metropolitan South Australia.

#HW2017 #endhomelessness and #innovationinhomelessness