Cut off: Melbourne's youth in crisis

No money, no internet, no social contact

Isolation is a major problem for many during COVID, but for Melbourne’s homeless youth, the situation can be life threatening.

“There is always a risk of suicide for these young people,” says Carly Salter, client services coordinator of Salvation Army Youth Services in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda.

“Many of the young people supported by our service were already marginalised and disconnected from the community at large prior to COVID-19 … Now they are facing a range of extra disadvantages during COVID.”

Fortunately, for those who find themselves in the care of Salvation Army Youth Services, they are given ongoing mental health support, which Salter describes as “a strong protective factor”.

“Young people do not have access to unlimited internet plans and smart technology.” – Carly Salter

Salter oversees two crisis accomodation and outreach services – Upton Rd and Tranmere St – which provide refuge and support to young people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. Clients stay at the centres for 6-8 weeks while being supported to find longer-term accommodation, develop independent living skills, undertake education and plan employment. The centres also provide outreach support to young people residing in south Melbourne.

Each year the centres support 400-500 homeless young people aged 16-25 years. But COVID has created a surge in demand, especially as other support services have been unavailable during Melbourne’s extended lockdown period.

“We get all referrals through housing entry points in our local area and they have seen an increase in people presenting for support. Unfortunately, as a service we do not get extra funding or extra housing options and still only have the same amount of vacancies we can offer,” Salter explains.

“Currently young people are really low on the hierarchy of needs being met. Right now, we are focusing on mainly safety needs, i.e. giving them food and shelter. Due to the closure of other services, crisis services have also had to step into the role of providing supports that they typically haven’t had to provide.”

Yet crisis centres like the one Salter oversees aren’t only plugging the gaps for kids who are sleeping rough, they are also needing to resolve new problems that have been created by COVID.

“The main one we have seen in crisis accommodation is that the reliance on technology and the internet has increased, but access and affordability to these things has not increased accordingly,” says Salter.

“Young people do not have access to unlimited internet plans and smart technology. Much of our funding at the moment goes to providing support to access mobile data and purchasing technology.”

“Young people no longer have access to drop in-services … Many also identify the lack of face-to-face mental health support to be challenging.” – Carly Salter

This problem is compounded by the fact that face-to-face contact is virtually non-existent during lockdown.

“There are very limited face-to-face supports open during COVID. Young people no longer have access to drop in-services,” says Salter. “Our young people have identified struggles with access to many services no longer available. Many also identify the lack of face-to-face mental health support to be challenging.”

Across town, COVID restrictions have also affected the way support is provided by the Upton Rd and Tranmere St centres.

“We have had to make many changes in relation to the type of support in order to follow social distancing guidelines, such as cancelling or moving online usual face-to-face groups like cooking classes and group dinners. Currently we are unable to transport clients or attend their houses or have face-to-face contact for longer than 15 minutes,” says Salter.

“There is also a lack of casual interaction. Everything at the moment needs to be planned and organised in advance. There is no spontaneity and casual interactions, which lots of our work previously relied on.

“For young people who are already socially isolated, this is not only a new way to interact with their support workers, it also takes away some of their key community engagements. There is no one on the street to chat to, which may be the only social interaction they have for the week.

“For young rough sleepers, their community is no longer around on the street. These are people who usually provide them with safety and company in times of need.”

Salter notes that lockdown has also further reduced the positive impact of the programs they run.

“At the refuge, we usually put a lot of focus on young people building on their independence as a step to eventually moving out into independent accommodation. Due to ongoing stage four lockdown limits, young people don’t get the opportunity to develop these living skills – they don’t have the opportunity to go and explore the local area, attend shops to purchase goods, get public transport to new destinations, etc.”

“There are less and less opportunities to explore spirituality on a casual basis.” – Carly Salter

And there is less opportunity to engage these young people with the gospel, according to Salter.

“Previously young people accessing our programs on site had many opportunities to build relationships through St Kilda Chapel, at shared social and community events. However, these have now been postponed due to COVID and social distancing regulations. These opportunities are available online for all young people to access upon request, but there are less and less opportunities to explore spirituality on a casual basis,” she says.

And unfortunately, from Salter’s perspective, conditions are likely to get worse in the months ahead for many young people.

“Many young people we see through our service struggle to find and maintain employment due to the transient nature of homelessness. It is difficult for young people who are worrying about where they will be sleeping that night, to prioritise getting to work on time. This has only been made more challenging in COVID times due to lack of employment options.”

And soon, unemployed young people (along with many others) will face another challenge when the government reduces its coronavirus supplement from September 25 – from $550 per fortnight to $250 per fortnight.

“I think it is good for people to think about what they would do if they immediately lost half of their income,” says Salter.

“When the supplement changes, our young people’s needs won’t change.” – Carly Salter

“The same sacrifices are what our young people are facing on an already stretched and limited income. Also how would we all feel about not knowing when you were going to lose your income, just sitting in the uncertainty. When the supplement changes, our young people’s needs won’t change. Restrictions will still be in place – with the online need still there – with even less financial access to things like the internet and data plans.”

She notes that the coronavirus supplement has been a lifeline for many young people in the community.

“The increased income amount has given many young people the opportunity to have access to fresh and healthy foods, meet hygiene needs by purchasing more than just basic essentials and relying on services for access to things like shampoo and conditioner. Increased income has provided opportunities for our young people to invest in their future in things like purchasing their own laptops for future study needs, instead of living fortnight to fortnight with their very limited income.

“There has also been an increase in young people having access to other forms of independent accommodation, such as private rental. Increased income means these options are more affordable. Uncertainty about how long this accommodation is sustainable is really unsettling for anyone in this situation.”

“Homelessness does not discriminate. It can happen to almost anyone at any time.” – Carly Salter

The global pandemic has highlighted just how easy it is for homelessness to occur and the lack of support structures in place for young people in this position, says Salter.

“Young people should be protected by many layers of support from society, including the education system, the health system and the local community. Homelessness occurs not just when there is family breakdown, but when there is a combination or a series of breakdowns in the systems that are there to protect everyone.

“While relationship and family breakdown, and family violence is a huge contributing factor seen in youth homelessness, homelessness does not discriminate. It can happen to almost anyone at any time, and COVID has just shown to the wider community how close anyone at any time can be to falling into hardship. It can be just one pay cheque away.”