Crisis accommodation for young homeless people under pressure in Cairns unchanged since 1986

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Tucked away in an ordinary-looking house on the outskirts of Cairns is an extraordinary household.

The house is shared by six housemates who stay at the only shelter for homeless girls and young women in Far North Queensland.

It serves an area from Cairns to the Cape York Peninsula, an area larger than Victoria.

Lily (pseudonym) fled an abusive home and moved to Cairns where the 16-year-old was couch surfing for a year and ended up sleeping in a park before moving into the shelter.

“It’s really depressing…you feel like you can’t go on.

“You don’t know what you’re doing with life anymore.”

But Lily considers herself one of the lucky ones.

She secured a bed at St Margaret’s Young Women’s Shelter, run by Anglicare, next to a similar shelter for young men run by St John’s.

They are the only two establishments offering youth-only crisis accommodation between Cairns and the Torres Strait and, with their capacity of six girls and six boys unchanged since 1986, both are under immense pressure.

The refuges are occupied 24 hours a day.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

Conny Lenneberg, acting chief executive of Anglicare North Queensland, said young people were being sent away daily.

“Last month, 43 young women were turned away,” she said.

“Last year, between the two services, 223 were turned away.”

No change for 35 years

St Margaret’s and St John’s were founded in Cairns in the mid-1980s, providing beds for girls and boys aged 16 to 25 in separate houses, with 24/7 support staff.

In 35 years, the area’s population has more than doubled and a half to over 165,000, but the number of funded beds has remained the same.

Cairns State Member Michael Healy agreed that was not enough.

“Basically, we’re talking about housing here,” he said.

“We need additional crisis housing.”

St Margaret’s House program manager Dearne Lang said those who had secured a bed could stay from a few nights to six months and beyond, depending on their needs, and be linked to support services.

“The needs are very varied, so you’re looking at alcohol and other drug support, medical support, education support, employment service providers, training, trying to reconnect with family and community as much as possible, she said.

A feeling of “safety”

Ms Lang said the stories behind the faces were all different, from domestic violence to intergenerational homelessness, to children leaving the security system because they were too old.

“Probably about 36% [of shelter residents] have been in child care before,” she said.

“It gives them a sense of security and that people care.”

three women stand on a veranda
St Margaret’s staff help connect residents with services such as mental health and addictions support.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

The shelter operates on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Sometimes they don’t even have their ID or really basic needs like a health insurance card,” Ms Lang said.

“[That’s] if we have a bed, the first person who calls gets the bed.”

She said the number of transitional housing had also not increased in the past three decades and the service was dealing with its own backlog.

Funding and pledges

The LNP holder at Leichhardt’s federal headquarters, Warren Entsch, said he had not heard from Anglicare about the need for additional support, but he agreed that housing and homeless support services were insufficient.

“I’m a strong advocate for getting more housing,” Entsch said.

“I would have thought if they had a real need they would have knocked on my door and said, ‘We need help’.”

This despite Anglicare North Queensland telling the ABC they had tried to contact Mr Entsch’s office on several occasions.

Mr Entsch said the service was playing politics, which he found ‘deeply disappointing’, and said he told Anglicare he would speak to them after speaking to State Deputy Michael Healy.

The Coalition pledged to invest $2.5 billion over the first five years of the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children.

A girl is sitting on a bed in a bedroom with a bare floor
More than 200 young people have been turned away from Cairns’ two youth shelters in the past year.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

Labor candidate for Leichhardt, Elida Faith, said coalition governments over the past nine years had “failed” to take the task seriously.

The ALP has committed $100 million to crisis housing nationwide and pledged to build 4,000 homes for women and children fleeing violence and older women at risk of homelessness.

Ms Faith said this would include $1million for crisis accommodation in Far North Queensland.

An endless cycle

Since the ABC began investigating the story, Anglicare has met with State Deputy Michael Healy, who said he was confident an announcement on crisis accommodation for young people would be made soon.

“I would expect to see an expansion of our facilities to accommodate anyone turned away,” Mr Healy said.

Anglicare warned that without more funding and support, the cycles of domestic abuse, homelessness, poverty and children in care would continue.

“We are all suddenly very concerned about domestic violence and saying no one should be subjected to domestic violence,” Ms Lenneberg said.

“But we have no solutions for their departure.”

Hope for the future

Lily has since found a home for herself and her mother, who was also homeless.

A young girl with long hair looks out the window
Lily says she felt less alone after arriving at St Margaret’s House in Cairns.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

“I’m doing all of this for my mom,” she said.

“It’s always difficult, the problems don’t go away right away.

“They’re still there, but eventually they fade away.

Lily said the friends she made through the shelter helped her deal with her mental health issues.

“I focused a bit more on myself and realized how much trauma I was going through [childhood],” she says.

“I had other bad habits that I don’t do anymore because you have friends and you feel like they care about you.”

Success stories are welcome

Ms Lenneberg said there had been many successes over the years, but she wanted to see more change.

“The solutions are there – supporting families, making sure they have the stability of a safe place to live, and then helping them connect,” she said.

“These are not very expensive solutions, and by not addressing the problems, the costs to society are enormous when we allow people to descend into despair and engage in a range of high-risk behaviors. that often accompanies this loss of hope.”

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