Tracy Ingram has been working in the area of youth homelessness for 17 years, the last 10 as manager of Carlow Place which provides accommodation for eight young people (four female and four male) aged between 15 and 18.
She is passionate about providing a loving, caring environment for some of the most vulnerable young people in our community and would love to see more crisis accommodation services like Carlow Place which is part of the Outer North Youth Homelessness Service run by Centacare Catholic Family Services.
Tracy says the demand for services is increasing and the problems “intensifying” as trauma suffered at a young age manifests itself in mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse and self-harm.
For vulnerable young people over the age of 15, foster care is not usually considered a suitable option – partly because they are seen as too old and also because of the lack of foster carers in the State.
“Priority is given to babies and young children,” Tracy said. “There are not enough places like Carlow Place for 15 and 16 year olds.”
Carlow Place has existed in its current location in Elizabeth for 20 years and is one of five specialised facilities offering 24/7 accommodation for young people.
Some of the young clients have been living on the streets, others have been in dysfunctional homes or families where the parents have their own problems and can’t deal with a troubled young person.
To access Carlow Place they have to prove to Centrelink that they are unable to live at home and therefore eligible for the independent youth allowance.
“We work with the 24/7 homeless sector to determine who might have the greatest need,” said Tracy. “They must have a connection to the north; it won’t work if they are from down south because then there is no network such as school friends and grandparents.”
While there is pressure to move clients on, Tracy said it was important for the young people to stay there as long as possible to give them a “good grounding and stability for the future”. Once they go into transitional housing, they are able to be there for only 18 months and are often forced to leave earlier.
This is regrettable, according to Tracy, because in transitional accommodation her team can continue to have input into their wellbeing and the opportunities they need to succeed. If they leave the system too early, they could well end up homeless again.
“It defeats the whole purpose of the program,” she said.
“In a normal situation a young person doesn’t leave home until they are in their early 20s or older…it can be very disrupting if they have to leave transitional accommodation while they are trying to finish school or TAFE.”
For those clients residing at Carlow Place, there is a holistic approach to providing support – from developing a sense of community through shared meals to taking them to dental and medical appointments. During the daytime there is a youth case worker who forms connections with the young people and provides consistency in their lives.
Youth workers are on rotation but a thorough handover process ensures staff are aware of what’s going on in the young people’s lives.
“They have to understand their body language; you’ve got eight young people from different backgrounds and stages of development, they might hate someone one minute and love them the next so you have to be up on who likes who,” Tracy explained.
“The youth worker is the first person the child sees when they come home – it’s so important to welcome them home, give them a cooked meal and ask them how their day was.
“They need to be welcomed with open arms, and make sure they are safe, fed and cared for.”
There is a zero drug and alcohol policy but Tracy said it was unrealistic to think the youths weren’t ‘using’ outside the house because often that was the reason they were there.
“They need to respect where they are living and know when it’s okay…if they can do that and can get along with people here, they are more likely to get along with people in the community.”
The curfew time of 10pm during the week and 11pm on weekends recognises that young people might want to go home for a while, or are at work or with friends.
While there is only one person supervising at night, there is an on-call person for emergencies and no visitors are allowed on site.
Tracy said many of the young people had suffered trauma in their early years and this had to be taken into account when supporting them to create better outcomes in adulthood.
A focus for Centacare has been using food to help build positive relationships, as well as provide nutritional benefits.
Meals are adapted to suit individual emotional needs. Sometimes they might want to eat in their own safe space while in summer they might eat together in the outdoor pergola. There is an opportunity to have input into the menu and take turns to cook and clean, enabling them to interact and connect with others.
Trading dollars are provided for ‘purchasing’ food items from a small shop in the house, which helps them with their budgeting and healthy eating.
Tracy said something as simple as a teenager’s refusal to eat may be due to deprivation or denial of food as a child.
She said there was a lack of mental health services for young people over the age of 16, who no longer qualified for Child and Mental Health Service counselling.
“There’s a lot of self-harm, a lot of cries for help,” she said.
“These kids have huge stories to tell…our staff have to be very caring, they have to know how to talk to them, and not assume they know what’s going on. If they start yelling there’s a reason why.
“Sometimes it’s pretty hard, if you can’t cry and feel something for these kids then you shouldn’t be here.”
She said education also was extremely important but schooling had to be flexible.
One of the most rewarding aspects of the job was seeing a young person continue their studies at university or TAFE or gain employment.
She recalled being at the shopping centre one day and a young man came up to her and said ‘remember me, I’m back at home and I’ve got a job and a car’.
“That’s what keeps me inspired because we often don’t know the impact until years down the track,” she said.
“We just have to make sure we listen and don’t judge a person – we don’t know what they’ve experienced so we have to gain their trust and develop a rapport to work out what can do to help.
“No-one chooses to be homeless; these young people are not safe at home, that’s why they are homeless.”
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