Saturday, 5 April 2008

Open hearts for the youngest on the streets

PAUL MOULDS began working with homeless people more than 20 years ago, before the 1989 Burdekin Inquiry into youth homelessness. Since then, the number of homeless teenagers has doubled in Australia.

Of the 100,000 people whom the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates are homeless each night, about 36,000 are thought to be under the age of 25 and 10,000 under 12. Every night, one in two young people who seeks support accommodation will be turned away.

"The faces change but the stories I hear are the same," Captain Moulds, the director of the Oasis Youth Support Network, said. "Torment, abuse, neglect - they were the same stories [20 years ago] but the figures just show we could do more."

Captain Moulds is one of many youth workers who gave evidence last year at the National Youth Commission's inquiry into youth homelessness. Its findings will be issued on Tuesday.

Since the hearings, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, pushed the issue of wider homelessness onto the political agenda in January. The Rudd Government's first white paper - to be prepared by Brotherhood of St Laurence executive director Tony Nicholson - will deal with homelessness, for which $150 million was promised in the lead-up to the election.

"You can't put your finger on one thing," Captain Moulds said, of what caused homelessness. "Some people have mental health issues, some have family issues, some have fallen out of state care … It is not about material things; it is mainly about the quality of relationships in families - leaving, without the financial basis or the emotional basis."

Captain Moulds was 19 when he began as an outreach worker in Kings Cross and has run the Oasis Youth Support Network in Surry Hills for 12 years. In the two years that Sascha Ettinger Epstein spent making a documentary about the program at Oasis, to be aired on ABC1 on Thursday, she said she struggled to comprehend his optimism and support for children straying from his programs.

"There is a massive emotional void in the kids' lives and they look for someone who is going to be there consistently," she said. "Paul is worse than the Energizer Bunny. He just perpetually has empathy: that unconditional love that you just want from a parent."

Her assessment was true for Beau Berry-Porter, who became homeless when he was about 13 and credits Captain Moulds for the stable housing in which he now lives. Though he left home thinking he could look after himself, last year he suffered a psychotic episode and he says the decision to leave is not one children can properly make.

"You can grow up but your priorities change," he said. "You can't have the successful life … of a job and a family and those things. But once you get that stable accommodation you can focus on those other things."


Public housing rorts cost $53m a year
A new offence of failure to notify change of conditions will be created, with the maximum punishment being a jail sentence.

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