Youth Projects is a Melbourne-based not-for-profit organisation that focuses on youth disadvantage and homelessness. Melanie Raymond, one of Australia’s 100 most influential women, is its Chair. She tells Sophie Taylor where youth homelessness hits Melbourne the hardest, and what her service is doing about it.
S: So how is Youth Projects different to other youth support and homelessness services available?
M: We’re very frontline… so we’re up close and personal with people who are homeless and marginalised every day and every night. We also offer service every day and night of the year- we never close- so we will have at least one outreach team on the streets until 2am every night of the year; Boxing Day, Christmas Day, it wouldn’t matter. And that’s quite unlike any other charity. I think the real point of difference is delving into the stuff that makes a deep impact, doing the hard yards on the combined issues of mental health, physical health, substance misuse, homelessness and unemployment. They are the causes of homelessness, so no amount of blankets, t-shirts, tinned food or hotdogs are going to change a person’s life of themselves. We do a lot of that but that’s incidental to a serious business and social impact of moving someone’s mental health forward, moving them ahead and out of addiction and giving them the skills and tools to find work, to be employable, to reconnect and repair relationships in their lives and feel part of the community.
S: Is it rewarding knowing that Youth Projects is actually making a difference for these people?
M: I think a lot of people claim to be making a difference, it’s become a bit too easy. So you’ll see charities solely devoted to giving out specially branded t-shirts or beanies, or blankets and toiletries, or, you know, hot food that makes a difference for the moment. To me the attraction is what we do is important. So it’s not about personal reward it’s about I can look at it impartially and say ‘this is an organisation doing something that’s important, doing something nobody else has got the courage to do’ and it’s difficult. That’s the attraction to me; the reward is me finding an outlet for a commitment around social justice, and I look through a very political lens at the gap between rich and poor and that’s another point of difference for Youth Projects; we’re independent, we have no connection to religion or a political party so we call it as we see it and we have very strong views about the gap between rich and poor, about inequality, about diversity.
S: Earlier last year there was a lot of media attention for the girl who was staying under the bridge doing VCE, can you tell me a bit about how the organisation would go about approaching and helping someone in that kind of situation?
M: Normally an intake worker would do an assessment with someone and see how comfortable they are telling us about their situation because it’s usually complex, it’s never one problem, there’s always multiple problems that need sorting out so we need to find out what those are first through a triage method and then with a multi-disciplinary team to find out does the person have a chronic illness, do they have a mental illness, do they have an alcohol or other drug issue that they feel comfortable addressing, what are their housing options, do they have warrants out for their arrest, what is their situation. For someone that young with a really keen interest in returning into study, it really was a focus of our attention but we knew that she couldn’t continue to study under a bridge, that was not going to last. Finding a shelter, stable housing was the number one thing that needed to change in her life and we did that first, as in the story she had no mental health illness, and she didn’t have a drug problem that made her atypical, unlike most of our clients. So in many ways she was a bit simpler to deal with and from the public’s point of view, probably more palatable and a more sympathetic example of youth homelessness. But when you’ve been homeless at an early age usually you will have significantly more problems in your life that need sorting out.
S: Do you think it’s because she was more palatable to the public, that’s why she got a bit more media attention than others who haven’t?
M: I think the public were inspired by the idea of someone, that indication to the extent that they were prepared to live in the mud under a bridge, doing homework by torchlight, which is as I found her, was, in fairness, the attraction of the story. But the fact that she was not a drug user and she was articulate and thoughtful, helped the story. People are very judgmental of people who are homeless so had that been part of the story, you would’ve seen far more critical comments come in, whereas people rallied to her, but there’s also a significant number of nasty comments on the sort of social media stream, lots of people doubting her story – people couldn’t believe that was actually true when every word of it was true. That was how I found her.
S: What do you think the people nowadays can actually do to change this stereotypical view on people who are homeless?
M: I think, if you’re capable, just be better educated. Google is out there, Google it up! Learn something reliable from the sites that are peak bodies around homelessness or the major charities because there is good data that can show you what the true picture is – that’s number one. I think that we’re getting inundated with people who want to donate clothes and… sometimes clothing’s not a priority for someone who’s homeless; if they know they’re going to be sleeping in a dirty alley they’re not terribly bothered [by] what they’re wearing. So think more deeply about the depth of the problem that’s being solved and what difference an old sweater or a pair of socks might make – everyday needs are important, don’t get me wrong, comfort and so forth, but if you are truly committed to making a change we need to look at poverty. We need to look at poverty in truth, we need to accept the massive gap between rich and poor and that it is widening, and that the nation does have to money to deal with this and chooses not to. Don’t be misdirected into thinking that an army of people giving out hot drinks, pancakes, t-shirts and blankets is solving the problem; that is a misdirection. If you think that any significant change is going to come out of that, that’s been going on and meanwhile the numbers of homeless on the street are rising and the number of homeless people in the suburbs is also increasing, that’s where homelessness begins, in the suburbs.
S: How do you reckon young people my age can actually help and get involved?
M: I think there’s a number of different ways. I think being champions, advocates and fundraisers is important; charities are in a bind that people don’t want them spending money on fundraising, so we’re not meant to do that but there’s nobody to do it [raise money]. The other thing is if you are wanting to volunteer, what exactly do you mean, and what is your time commitment and understand the seriousness of making that offer. You need to be punctual, regular, and serious about what you’re doing and skilled up, but for organisations such as ours, we’re a client group, a high risk group, so they’re not a group of people you can put an untrained 17-year-old or 19-year-old in front of – that would be unwise. And not every charity has jobs that involve buttering bread and serving soup; the number of requests I get that seem to be very food based, ‘I want to come in and serve lunch’ – we don’t do it that way. We also give people dignity of choice. So they serve their own lunch, they eat what they want and how much of it they want and when they want it, so we don’t slap it down on a plate, there’s nobody doing that. Are you prepared to sort old clothes? I’ve had people when they’ve found out that was the contribution and they didn’t want to do it. So think about the things that you can do to help a charity, everything you do that they don’t have to spend money on is a cost saving to them. Being better aware, talking about it, don’t drink the cool-aid, don’t believe what you’re told about poverty, don’t believe the lies about people who are homeless, about young, unemployed people, about dole-bludgers and so forth. There’s a lot of hype and a lot of prejudice and being prepared to step up and say ‘actually that’s not true and it’s not fair’.
S: As the last question, are there any new or big projects coming up for the organisation?
M: Yes there are. In February next year we’re looking forward to a major renovation to a world-class service. The renovation would be world class in terms of redesigning the space to reflect current needs, we’ve been here 13 or 14 years, so things change, and that’s pretty major. We have just started our new homeless women’s clinic so that’s health screening for women who are homeless, making sure that they get their breast screening and cervical screening, and building on that we’ve got a physiotherapist starting, and we’re also in Glenroy – which is the seat of youth disadvantage, it is ground zero, nationally it has the highest rates of youth unemployment, are in Melbourne’s north. So we’re building a youth led centre opposite Glenroy Station, it will be unlike anything anyone’s ever seen before in its approach; there’s no reception, there are very few rules, people will come in and decide what they want to do, what they need, and it’s all there in one place. So we hope to have that underway early next year. So there’s some pretty interesting things that we’re doing. We’re also looking to develop a project on LGBTI youth around completing the rainbow audit and having some protected time and space for the LGBTI youth to come in and feel welcome and get the information and support they need, and working with particular groups around methamphetamine use, and a youth-led information campaign that’s pretty raw and pretty honest. But we’ve spoken to young people – not about young people, we’ve spoken directly to them – and to people who are now recovering from ice addiction who are very young, around what would’ve made a difference. So they’ve helped us design the campaign and told us what they think might have made a difference at the time they were commencing ice use. We’re looking forward to rolling that out next year, it’s the number one drug of choice for all groups of clients and we have people who are commencing ice use at around the age of 13 or 14 now and that’s a big change from five or ten years ago. So we need to do something.