Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights

AUSTRALIA: Homeless Young Women Defying Stereotype

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Jun 7 2010 (IPS) - Geraldine Martin, Sara Stilianos, both 20, and Erin Murphy, 24, are like many young Australian women: bright, articulate, well presented, they have high hopes for their futures. Yet all three are homeless.

“A week after my 17th birthday, my Mum kicked me out of home,” says Geraldine.

After spending the following 18 months “drifting” around her home town of Adelaide, often sleeping on friends’ couches – couch surfing, as the practice is known in Australia – Geraldine moved to Melbourne where she has experienced periods of relative stability with employment and renting private property.

She has also stayed in two refuges for homeless young people and currently lives in government-supported transitional housing. However, Geraldine is required to move out of her current accommodation at the end of the year.

While she says both refuges “were really good,” Geraldine has since given birth to a baby girl and is eager to find private accommodation, no easy task in Australian cities where rents have exploded in recent years and competition for housing is high.

“I don’t want to take my baby to a refuge where I have no choice over who we live with,” Geraldine, who plans to become a youth worker and is currently undertaking high school-equivalent studies, explains to IPS.

Brett McDonnell, acting manager of Frontyard Youth Services – a one-stop shop tackling the physical, social and emotional needs of homeless or marginalised young people aged 12 to 25 in Melbourne – says that “a lot of Australians associate homelessness with the media stereotype of a middle- aged man with a flagon of wine covered in newspaper on a park bench.”

He argues that this perception of homelessness is misguided. “We don’t have a large, visible street-sleeping population [in Australia], for example, but we do have a lot of young people that couch surf. But the general population doesn’t think of that as being homeless.”

According to Homelessness Australia, the nation’s peak body addressing the issue, a person is homeless if he or she “does not have access to safe, secure, adequate housing.”

Despite Australia’s relative prosperity, some 105,000 people around the country are homeless on any given night.

A report released in April by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, a government agency, found that one in every 105 Australians sought support from a government-funded specialist homelessness agency in the 12 months to July 2009.

The most highly represented demographic was young women aged 15 to 19, with one in every 50 women in this age bracket accessing services such as meals and showers.

Such statistics do not come as a surprise to McDonnell. “I guess because of the volume of young people that we see here,” he explains.

The young women who arrive at Frontyard often have more complex experiences of homelessness, according to McDonnell. “I think it’s when you unpack some of their story that you realise that their experiences of homelessness have actually been going on for a lot longer than some of the young men,” he says.

For 24-year-old Erin Murphy, originally from Brisbane, homelessness has been a constant for years. She moved out of her mother’s house at 16 after their relationship broke down and currently resides at a backpackers’ hostel in Melbourne. Erin has stayed in various hostels and boarding houses as well as sleeping rough at times.

“It’s really hard when you’ve got nothing to actually get out of the cycle of having nothing,” she says. “Nobody is on the street because they want to be.”

Erin, who has forsaken custody of her three-year-old daughter while she seeks work and a place to call home, feels a sense of “guilt” that her daughter is growing up without her. But she says that her daughter is at least in a stable situation now.

“Kids pick up on the stress of not being able to know where we are going to stay on a particular night,” says Erin.

Sara Stilianos says being homeless is “so stressful” that it gives her chest and stomach pains. She has stayed at a friend’s house for the past three weeks but does not know how long the arrangement will last.

Prior to staying there, she lived at a different house for 11 days and at another address for a month before that. It is a pattern she has often experienced since leaving home at 15 following her mother’s nervous breakdown.

“I’ve been moving around for the last six years, all over. I went to Cairns, Adelaide, Sydney, all over Melbourne,” says Sara.

While her future plans include creating a shelter for young people “who have nowhere else to go on the exact night that they’re looking for housing” as well as getting a job and a secure home so that her infant daughter can live with her, Sara says she feels stuck at present.

“It feels like every time I have something to look forward to, there’s always something else that comes and ruins it,” she says.

When Sara has nowhere to go, she says that her options include staying with people she meets on Melbourne’s streets or going to the open-all-hours casino.

Erin concurs that some homeless young women will sleep with a stranger in order to get off the streets. “Women can always pick up a guy in a pub,” she says.

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