In my post, Where the wild things are I wrote about the worrying fact that teenagers between the age of 15 and 19 are Australia’s most violent people, with boys making up 90 per cent of this figure. I questioned if we were doing the best we could to bring up our boys and how our culture could better support teenage boys. There are many factors; increased access to drugs and alcohol, changing family structures or exposure to violent electronic games.
It triggered a story of a boy I have gotten to know over the past six months and I want to share his story here. For the purpose of this story, let’s call him Gary.
Gary is a rough sleeper most of the time. Sometimes he sleeps near the police station or on the park bench near the fountain or he finds somewhere to sleep for a few hours in the day so he doesn’t have to risk sleeping at night. Other times, he sleeps on a friends couch – known as couch surfing – but the company he keeps means the houses he stays in are generally overcrowded and there is easy access to alcohol and drugs. He is a bright boy and has a loving heart.
I spoke to Gary every few days and it became clear whether he was on a high or a low. A few weeks ago, he was clearly on a high. He bounded up to me to tell me why he was so happy. He was living with some other boys in a tent on the beaches and was full of hope. Rather than spending his time on the street, he was surfing every day with his mates, working out how to cook dinner together and was part of a group of friends. He felt connected with his mates and was hopeful about his future. Connectedness and proximity with other boys had been achieved. He even talked of going up North and doing some fruit picking to get out of the cycle.
Each morning Gary and his friends would go for a surf and come back and have breakfast in their tent. They would plan their day and it would consist of more surfing and being together – a little like a pack. This particular morning, they were coming back up the beach from an early morning surf and they saw the Council were pulling down their tent. The boys watched as the Council put the remains of their tent and belonging into their truck.
The general rule is that when Council picks up the ‘stuff’ left around the streets or on crown land, it is disposed of. If you challenge them, you are fined and it is a much worse situation than loosing your belongings. Imagine for one second that if you are were a rough sleeper and wanted to go up the street to get breakfast, it would be easier to leave your bag, pillow and blanket rolled up somewhere, rather than carrying it all with you. Or indeed if you want to go surfing, you wouldn’t take your bedding to the beach. So there you go. It was easier for the group to watch their tent and belongings being loaded into the council truck. Admittedly, the land they camped on was crown land and it was illegal to camp there. So yet again, Gary was homeless and faced uncertainty. He had lost all his possessions and his youthfulness again.
While this was all going on, I saw him a couple of days in a row and he had clearly hit a low. He was sitting, slumped on a chair drinking coke. We tried to talk, but each time he started talking, someone came in or walked by and he would stop. This particular day, Gary and I spoke for some time. He talked in-depth about his immediate need – to get money to eat. He lives from pay to pay from the Newstart allowance, however because all his possessions were taken by the Council, he had no wallet (as it was in the side of the tent because of course you can’t take it surfing), no credit card to get money out and no ID to go into the bank and get the money. He had no parent to say, here is $50 to get yourself back on track or to give him his birth certificate to prove who he was. He was meant to go to a meeting with his Centrelink supervisor at 3pm the day before and he didn’t make it. He said he couldn’t get the money together for his train ticket. He also couldn’t muster the energy to go. On top of all this, he battles with depression and addiction. Holding down a job is a dream.
While we talked, he phoned Centrelink and was put on hold. He explained he had already spoken with them the day before and was met with resistance and today was pay day. Because he had missed his meeting, he wasn’t going to be paid. He was going to explain himself again and see how he got on but was dirty with council and services and felt failed by the system. As we talked the hold music played and every few minutes he wanted to hang up. Rolling a drunk on the streets or stealing from a corner store were other more viable options at this stage.
He is 19 years old and a prime candidate for crime and violence. He has been subject to the crime and violence on the streets but is not a criminal himself. He is constantly judged for being in the situation he is in and is trying to fill in his days His depression and addiction don’t help. Centrelink answered, I wished him luck and left. I haven’t seen him around for a few weeks and can only assume he is in a safe place.
He is one of many young people who pass in and out of homelessness and have lost hope. The latest figures from the ABS Census of Housing and Population show that in 2011, 42 per cent of the 105,000 homeless people in Australia on any given night, are under 24 years of age and 27 per cent are under 18 years. After hearing Steve Biddulph and Brendan Cowell speak last week, has our culture and society failed this boy? Maybe he didn’t have the role models in his life to learn the rights and wrongs. Was his upbringing stable and was he taught empathy on his mother’s knee between the age of 0 and 3 years? Was he given the best opportunity in the education system? Was Gary given a chance to build resilience as a child and taught there are consequences for his actions? One of the most obvious traits Gary lacks is self-esteem.
This boy could be your son. We have a huge job as a parent and a culture to nurture our boys and teach them how to interact with the world. I wonder if Abbott knows that cutting Youth homeless services will result in many more Gary’s?