Bringing homeless street kids in from the cold

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Raw Potential executive director Sarah Murdoch, left, and outreach worker Nicolle Applewhite… it’s scary and sad to see young people, some as young as 12 and 14, struggling with issues such as homelessness, mental health and drug and alcohol addiction, says Nicolle. Photo: Kate Meikle

“IT’S the worst feeling in the world when you hand a young person a swag or sleeping bag, knowing that’s the best you can do for them,” says executive director of St Johns Care Sarah Murdoch as the colder nights bring home the reality of sleeping rough for many of Canberra’s disadvantaged kids.

Sarah and her small team of youth workers based at St John’s Care in Reid run Raw Potential, a community-funded program dedicated to improving the lives of Canberra’s disadvantaged youth.

Raw Potenial’s youth outreach worker Nicolle Applewhite says that it’s scary and sad to see young people, some as young as 12 and 14, struggling with issues such as homelessness, mental health and drug and alcohol addiction.

Despite the odds they face and the trauma they have experienced, she says that their resilience is impressive.

The reality is that up to 300 young people are homeless in the ACT and homelessness amongst 12-25-year-olds is 40 per cent of the total homeless population in Australia, says Nicolle.

“With only six refuges that have 10-12 beds, most of these young people are either couch surfing, squatting or sleeping rough,” says Sarah.

Sarah says that there is a huge need for housing, in crisis accommodation and long-term residential care, to help give these young people a safe place where they can be supported by on-site youth workers.

Sarah says she observed a group of young people, aged between 14 and 18, who were squatting in the old Cooyong Street community housing block move from apartment to apartment as each of them were recently demolished. She says that increased community awareness of youth homelessness, in addition to donations, is important.

Raw Potential, previously known as YouthCARE Canberra, was founded by former ACT chief justice Terence Higgins in the late ’80s and has a long track record in supporting at-risk youth by running an outreach program  tailored to support the individual. Raw Potential is overseen by a passionate volunteer board that shares a desire for social justice, says Sarah.

“Being fully funded by donations allows us to have more flexibility. We can work out where the services gaps and needs are,” says Sarah.

Nicolle says she currently works with 15 clients and helps them with their basic needs such as food, housing and supplies as well as work out a plan to achieve longer-term goals such as return to study, finding work or volunteering placements.

The Raw Potential team recently brought a group of young women together at a hair salon in Gungahlin that had donated their services to give them a haircut, building up confidence and creating a support network.

“These are girls who haven’t had their haircut in years,” says Nicolle, who is planning more group work programs.

Thanks to community donations, Raw Potential is also buying a van to enable their team to go out to key locations with supplies such as sleeping bags, swags, food as well as a laptop to help young people navigate and link into community and government programs and assistance.

There have been many good news stories over the years, Sarah says.

“One of our previous clients, who is now in her mid-20s, has recently completed her youth worker degree and is now employed by a charity. After being disengaged from education as a young person, she found her way back to study and now wants to give back to other young people,” says Sarah.

Sarah and Nicolle also recall a young man who was on the brink of suicide.

“He was interested in cars, but it was too late in the term to sign him up for a CIT program so I asked an automotive business if he could do work experience with them. It gave him something to live for and has set him up with a future skill,” says Nicolle.

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Kate Meikle
Kate Meikle is a staff reporter for "CityNews"

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