October 2018

Eighteen and homeless

Never did I fear turning 18, writes Ashleigh Green. For Tenille, who I met two years ago, the thought of turning 18 made her stomach tighten and ache.

BY Ashleigh Green

2009 was my year of HSC, formals, university admission entries and parties. Lady Gaga was the soundtrack of every 18th birthday as we danced naively into the abyss of adulthood. “Just dance, gonna be okay. Da-da-doo-doo-doo-n, just dance,” we sang. I believed it. Everything was gonna be okay. If I lost my job delivering butter chicken and naan for $10 an hour, I knew I’d still have a home. My parents had my back.

On the 12th of November, 2009 I became an adult according to the electoral roll, the law and the local Liquorland. But my life didn’t change all that much. I woke up the next morning in my same purple room, complete with fluffy cushions and lipstick-stained carpet. I transitioned slowly into adulthood.

My father nicknamed me Boomerang as, in typical Gen Y style I bounced between share houses, university accommodation and the family home. Every few years I’d arrive back on my parents’ doorstep with six suitcases and a truck-full of furniture that needed storage. The family home was my base and my back-up plan.

Never did I fear turning 18. Never did I imagine that turning 18 could mean being evicted from home and stripped of financial support. For Tenille (not her real name) who I met two years ago, the thought of turning 18 made her stomach tighten and ache.

I met Tenille through my role as a caseworker. She had been living in residential care since she was 13-years-old and her care was provided by shift workers who entered and exited the house on a rotating roster. New residents would come and go. Some residents would leave because a foster care placement was found. Others would simply run away or be incarcerated for months at a time.

Tenille’s mother was a heavy ice user and her father was never on the scene. Tenille yearned for a ‘normal’ family home, but she knew that her self-harm and drug use was unmanageable for well-meaning foster carers.

Residential care was hardly a desirable environment but it provided Tenille with home-cooked meals, a daily living allowance and carers to walk her through her darkest hours. Tenille despised residential care, but she knew that she couldn’t function without it. Naturally, Tenille was petrified by the thought of turning 18, well aware that her care supports would end abruptly as the clock struck 12.

When the day finally came, she cried. Within hours of blowing out candles, Tenille was on her own. She started a six-month transitional housing lease on her 18th birthday. The private rental market was never an option for Tenille due to her age, non-existent rental history and limited finances.

Tenille still doesn’t know where she will be living next year, nor do the majority of 18-year-olds exiting Out of Home Care in Australia. Nearly 35 per cent of young people who leave Out of Home Care become homeless within the first year, according to a 2009 Create Foundation survey. When leases end or circumstances change, many young people like Tenille do not know how to access secure housing. Without family support and financial assistance, their days become an eternal search for the next couch or crisis house.

Last month Australia’s Catholic Bishops released their 2018-2019 Social Justice Statement, A Place to Call Home: Making a home for everyone in our land. The statement challenges us to confront Australia’s growing rate of homelessness and unaffordable housing.

I read the statement with Tenille’s terror still etched in my memory. Opening with the parable of the Good Samaritan, I imagined the person by the roadside as a young woman abandoned, frightened and pining for love. I imagined Tenille.

The statement challenges us not to see homelessness as a collection of individual tragedies that evoke feelings of sympathy. The statement calls for “a national response that addresses the structural causes of homelessness as a shared social responsibility”.

Just last month, the Victorian State Government announced it would increase the leaving care age in Victoria to 21. Commencing in 2019, government support will be provided to young people in Out of Home Care for an additional three years as they navigate the world of resumes, relationships and rent.

The 5,000 individual supporters, community groups and philanthropic backers who have worked for this change since 2016 are the good Samaritans of Australia’s homelessness crisis.

The road is still rocky. We will continue to meet young people by the roadside, stripped of their dignity with wounds to bandage. Young people outside of Victoria will continue to have their support discontinued on the morning of their 18th birthday.

There will be many more tears to wipe away on the roadside.

But we can use our voices. We can advocate for structural change.

Jesus’ parable shows us how revolutionary and effective the actions of one person can be.

Ashleigh Donnelly

Ashleigh is a Social Worker who has worked with youth at risk and adults living with intellectual disabilities. Ashleigh is married to Justin and is mum to Rosemary who is soon to turn one. In 2019, she accepted an invitation to join the Vatican's International Youth Advisory Body as the Oceania representative. Ashleigh enjoys speaking, writing, cooking, hiking, and undertaking creative endeavours.

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