Behind every drug addiction, crime, enslaved sex worker and homeless teen is a person with an intricate story that goes beyond his or her stumbles in life. Whether it is child abuse, mental illness or generational encounters with the legal system, these young people come from a broad range of backgrounds. But Wayside Chapel Youth Manager, Dean de Haas, narrowed it down to an underlying issue.
“A lot of our young people are really hurt by something. They’re just suffering some pain from somewhere,” he said. “Often, we have young people who’ve been told for a long time that they’re not going to amount to anything, so they follow that pathway themselves.”
Wayside Chapel, in Kings Cross, has experienced a dramatic increase of young visitors in need. Spread throughout the 2011/12 financial year, Wayside supported 31 people aged under 16. But in the last two months, it has already seen 28. In four years, the yearly intake of under 25-year-olds has increased from around 150 to 450 people.
Young people have not been spared Australia’s housing affordability crisis. A recent survey discovered housing to be the greatest unmet need for social service clients. At Wayside, only 10 of the 450 people under 25 years of age had stable accommodation in the last financial year.
With more of these young people finding their way into Kings Cross, Mr de Haas is concerned this opens the door for teens to be groomed by people who might not have their best interests at heart.
Still, in an area plagued by drugs, crime and homelessness, beauty arises in places like Wayside where members of the community unite to help themselves. Importantly, Wayside gives a “hand up” not a “hand out”. There is dignity in the way visitors choose and pay for their meals at the café. The drop-in youth space, with couches, a chalkboard wall and a kitchen, is a safe place for young people to own and look after.
The Employment Pathways Project helps to foster ambition and self-worth. The excitement was evident on Mr de Haas’s face when he told the story of a young man who went from asking for money on the streets to being the leading salesperson at a call centre.
But the demand is getting tougher in Kings Cross, Mr de Haas says. “It is a challenge and it means we have to train our volunteers to be able to take on greater roles. Our youth service has opened for longer hours to meet that need. We have increased staffing, but we haven’t received any increased funding.”
There are currently two full-time and two part-time youth workers at Wayside, accompanied by 28 volunteer shifts a week. According to Mr de Haas, funding from NSW Health only makes up around 30 per cent of their budget, the rest of which is acquired through fundraising and foundations.
Across Australia, youth services have been under increased strain with 65 per cent saying they have had to lengthen working hours and limit service levels.
In May, many were outraged when the NSW government announced it would disband the Kings Cross Adolescent Unit, which has provided after-hours specialist youth support for 27 years. The Public Service Association called this a disastrous move and accused the government of having “no effective plan” for tackling youth risks on the streets.