A hearth for the homeless

Kayla Bothwell
Kayla Bothwell

KAYLA Bothwell presents as a smart 21-year-old. She speaks with confidence in clear, concise sentences. Her demeanour suggests engagement with a world full of promise and purpose. There is little hint of her emotionally crippling childhood.

I met Kayla at the Hanover welfare services short-term crisis accommodation centre for homeless people. The previous night she had been involved in a violent verbal confrontation with her partner that ended with Hanover management ordering him to leave. She admits to having an anger problem.

Kayla says it was her stepfather's excessive drinking and his physical violence directed against her and her mother that caused her to run away from home at 15.

Her life as a "streetie", she says, was broken only by casual relationships with stray men, bouts of serious drug-taking ("but I only tried heroin once"), poor health and erratic school attendance.

She says she is desperate to find secure accommodation and to build a career as a childcare worker.

On any given night in Victoria there are 4000 Kaylas with nowhere to go. A fortunate few end up at Hanover. According to Tony Keenan, Hanover's chief executive, half have dropped out of education, thereby seriously diminishing their job prospects.

In Western Australia, where there is a significant indigenous population, the number is 3000 a night — equally alarming given the state's smaller population. Research indicates that about 33 per cent of Australia's estimated 100,000 homeless are between 12 and 24 years of age.

And that does not factor in a generation of indigenous school dropouts aimlessly wandering the outback towns and communities of Derby, Broome, the Tiwi Islands, Alice Springs, Katherine and Darwin.

Also like Kayla, Aboriginal children are fleeing trauma: family violence, alcohol and sexual abuse and untreated mental health problems. In remote areas there are few crisis centres like Hanover. There is no mystery why indigenous youth suicide rates in the Northern Territory and WA are the worst in the country — support in these states is minimal.

What troubles Keenan, who has worked in the education sector, is that homeless young people are especially vulnerable because their lack of stable accommodation puts education out of their reach. "The transition through school to work is a critical time; we know from extensive research that young people who are disengaged from education are at risk of long-term unemployment and long-term homelessness."

Keenan says recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics show that in the past four months, 24,000 people, including 4000 indigenous, were living in homeless facilities. "It's no longer feasible for service providers to look after people for a few weeks. The challenge is to do more, a lot more."

That is about to happen, says Keenan. A quiet revolution in social policy, called Youth Foyers, is under way to link disconnected youth to skills-based education.

Youth Foyers emerged in France in the 1890s and were revived after World War II to cater for large numbers of orphaned, displaced and abandoned children. In the French language the term "foyer" translates into "hearth of fireplace" or "home".

In a remarkable and largely unheralded policy initiative, the Baillieu government has moved to adopt and expand foyers as a key part of its response to homelessness, a policy promised in opposition.

Previously, youth homelessness had been addressed with refuges, crisis accommodation, programs to reconnect young people with their families, and short-term assistance programs that failed to deliver lasting solutions.

In April, Housing Minister Wendy Lovell said the government would start work on the first of three foyers of about 40 rooms for accommodation at a total cost of $30 million.

Hanover and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, in conjunction with TAFE's Kangan Institute, will operate the first on the Broadmeadows campus. This follows the opening in 2009 of a 24-person foyer in Collingwood by the AFL Players Association and Melbourne City Mission.

Mark Bolton, chief executive of the Collingwood Ladder foyer, which began with funding from the players' association and the Brumby government, says AFL players want to contribute something more lasting than turning up to charity events. "Our efforts were an inch deep and a mile long; players wanted to contribute more."

Bolton, who played more than 100 games for Essendon, says the foyer concept was the obvious choice. "Foyers are not rocket science; you provide safe sustainable accommodation and supports for young people to thrive. We had to look at what we are good at and that is dealing with hopes, dreams and aspirations and identifying talent."

Although not a new idea, foyers offer a radical and proven alternative to the traditional social worker-based approaches to homelessness that rely on case management and ad hoc programs that frame homeless youths through a prism of negatives. Foyers are a qualitative advance offering safe, stable accommodation and skills-based education.

In Britain the concept has been given an entirely new meaning with about 10,000 children attending 140 foyers annually. The results have been highly encouraging. According to Colin Falconer, the director of innovation at the UK Foyer Federation, 70 per cent of young people who pass through foyers for two years or more progress through to "secure pathways" in education, employment and housing.

"Once kids are labelled with negative images of themselves and are categorised as 'a problem', it is difficult for them to move into adulthood," says Falconer.

"When the caseworkers focus on fixing the negatives, their [young people's] personal strengths get overlooked. Foyers focus on the positive and that can mean selecting a different type of person to be caseworkers, including established professions such as league footballers and architects."

Independent research in Britain has confirmed the constructive role foyers play apart from helping residents with career training and finding work. About 62 per cent of graduates emerge more confident about dealing with those around them, including those they may encounter in job interviews.

But according to Ian Carter, chief executive of Anglicare WA, foyers are not for everybody — especially those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol or display violent antisocial behaviour.

Foyer candidates are usually referred by agencies and then assessed for suitability. Carter, who is establishing the nation's largest "Oxford foyer", with accommodation for 100 on the campus of Perth's Central Institute of Technology, says that as a starting point applicants must want to be there and be willing to study.

Those who are accepted to the foyer will agree to pay rent calculated against welfare payments and abide by the house rules that include zero tolerance of drugs, alcohol and antisocial behaviour.

"For me foyers are the missing part of the jigsaw puzzle," Carter says. "We have programs for street kids and my organisation does a lot of that, but there is nothing that allows kids to transition to independence and adulthood. What we offer is putting the equivalent of a parent back into their lives, because usually that is what has been missing."

What is also moving governments here and in Britain, the US and other countries including the Netherlands to embrace the foyer approach is the financial cost of doing nothing. Homeless kids invariably become caught up in the justice, public health and welfare systems.

The annual cost to society of a homeless person can amount to tens of thousands of dollars when all factors are taken into account — taxpayer-subsidised accommodation, welfare payments, legal aid, hospital admissions and counselling.

There is also potential for foyers, if applied with appropriate cultural awareness, to make serious inroads into the indigenous youth crisis in remote parts of Australia.

Chris Milne is the Broome development manager for Foundation Housing, a WA non-government organisation involved with the Oxford foyer. He is hoping to establish the first foyer in the Kimberley, with accommodation for 60. The idea is to work with the Kimberley TAFE and he believes there are about 500 young people who stand to benefit.

Milne believes a business case can be made for developing foyers in remote areas because they offer opportunities for families to move off welfare. In a region where unemployment rates are well above the national average, foyers provide a much-needed "leg-up".

Hanover CEO Tony Keenan, speaking as chairman of the national Foyer Foundation, which held its first conference in Melbourne last Friday, argues there is a pressing need for public policymakers in Canberra to adopt more assertive approaches to ending homelessness and providing ways for children to re-engage with work and or study.

"Keeping people for six weeks in emergency housing and then putting them back on the streets is not a long-term answer."

For Kayla Bothwell the opportunity offered by foyers cannot come soon enough. She is is anxiously searching for private accommodation in a rental market she cannot afford.

Russell Skelton is a contributing editor.

This story A hearth for the homeless first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.