By Ciaran O’Mahony
Afiya* still remembers the feelings of emptiness and despair when she experienced homelessness.
Three years ago, the African-Australian moved to Melbourne from Perth, armed with her savings, a few belongings, and a dream of starting a fashion label.
But she had no idea how tough it would be to find work and accommodation in a strange new city.
Sadly at just 18 years of age, with her university degree underway, she found herself in a Victorian homeless shelter.
“I guess I didn’t think things through and I thought ‘I’m just going to go [to Melbourne] and everything’s going to be fine,’” she says.
“But when I got there, things were not fine.”
“I didn’t have a job and I didn’t have a place to stay, so I ended up being homeless.”
She was far from alone. At least 6,370 Victorian youth experience homelessness on any given night. The latest census statistics show that 26% of Victoria’s homeless population are aged 12-24.
In 2019, the State Government launched an Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria to find desperately needed solutions.
The Inquiry’s final report found that the homelessness sector was overwhelmed and too crisis-oriented. It therefore urged the Government “to strengthen early intervention measures to identify individuals at risk and to prevent them from becoming homeless.”
Source: Canberra Community Law Twitter page
Afiya’s path from experiencing homelessness to a small business owner, points to one such method of early intervention.
Desperate to find accommodation, she initially went to a temporary homeless shelter.
“Things get difficult and you don’t know where to go,” she says.
“I’d just started uni and I ended up at a homeless shelter for a bit. Then I got into another place through the homeless shelter. They recommended the youth foyer for me.”
That foyer was an Education First Youth Foyer (EFYF) – one of three currently operating in Victoria (Broadmeadows, Glen Waverley and Shepparton).
EFYFs are an integrated learning and accommodation program led by Launch Housing and Brotherhood of St Laurence, in partnership with TAFE campuses and youth support services.
Each campus provides accommodation to 16-24 year olds who are at risk of, or experiencing homelessness, and willing to engage in study – whether it be high school, VET, TAFE or University.
“You stay there for 24 months while you’re studying. They also help you to find work,” according to Afiya.
Kane Ord, Manager of the Holmesglen Institute’s EFYF (Glen Waverley), explains that accommodation is important, but their main focus is on education and skills building.
EFYFs take an ‘advantaged thinking’ approach to prevention and early intervention, which involves investing in youth’s skills, talents and passions, rather than just focusing on their weaknesses.
“We certainly don’t ignore any challenges a young person might be experiencing, but we definitely don’t make it the centrepiece of our work with them,” Ord says.
In the past, much of the funding for youth programs has been invested in ‘fixing’ young people’s ‘deficits’ – whether it be addiction, mental health or housing.
But Ord explains that this service alone will not give them the foundation to build a better future.
“When you think about it, you don’t become an Olympic athlete by just making sure you don’t have a broken leg! But unfortunately, that’s exactly how a lot of other mainstream youth services work,” he says.
“We slap a Band-Aid on the problem and send them out the door with fingers crossed that we won’t see them again.”
Holmesglen Institute’s Education First Youth Foyer, Glen Waverley. Photo: Bianca Roberts
In contrast, EFYFs start by showcasing their students’ talents and capabilities, then they invest in developing them.
All foyer residents are given Youth Development Workers who leverage their networks and industry connections to provide opportunities for their students.
There are also mentoring programs, where students are paired with advisers specifically selected to complement their career goals and aspirations.
“Our whole model has been devised to ensure that we are able to offer our students the opportunities and resources they need in order to work toward their goals and aspirations,” says Ord.
“That’s how you create happy, connected but independent adults.”
Education and training comes first at EFYFs. Photo: Bianca Roberts
Afiya is now one of those happy and independent adults.
After entering the foyer, she continued her course in Fashion and Design, and worked as a Steward at the Melbourne Convention Centre.
“It’s very like a community,” she says.
“They basically make sure you’re staying on track. They make sure you’re still in school [and] you’re finding employment.”
Eventually, she found work that aligned with her studies as a Design Assistant at a Fashion Studio.
As she found her feet, she began to dream of starting a fashion business again.
“I was able to get part-time employment and save up to move out. I could live without assistance and save up for my business,” says Afiya.
“I feel like most people just need that little bit of help to get things together. Because otherwise, if you don’t get that help, you could be doing something else that would get you into more problems.”
She now lives independently and officially launched her fashion label in March.
The label mixes classic Western designs with her cultural dress, to give people with the same background an opportunity to express their heritage through clothing.
Afiya wanted to bring more diversity to the fashion industry after seeing her family and friends struggle to find clothing that reflected their culture. But it’s a blend that she believes will appeal to the wider public.
She hopes that her business will eventually become profitable enough to give back to youth in her home country.
Although she moved to Australia as a refugee at the age of 9, she still thinks of the abject poverty she witnessed there.
“I hear a lot of stories from people in my community as well as things I’ve seen before I came here,” Afiya says.
“I was very young, but now when I think of it, I’m like oh my gosh!”
Her goal is to build a hub, similar to the EFYFs, where people can live and learn new skills.
“I want to have a place like the foyer where women and children have a place to go or they don’t have to be on their own,” says Afiya.
It would be a place where women could learn fashion design skills while their children are enrolled in schools.
“You can stay for 2 years and learn how to sew, how to pattern, how to design. Then when they leave the foyer, we can help them find employment or they can work for the company,” she says.
“I want to be able to offer employment to people who find difficulties. It’s very hard to find a job there. There’s very little employment. People want to work, but there’s no work.”
Just as Afiya is striving to give others some of the support she received at her lowest point, Launch Housing’s General Manager-Keeping Housing, Tanya Armstrong, says many other EFYF students have a lot to offer our community.
“Youth who’ve experienced or been at risk of homelessness have an incredible amount to contribute,” Armstrong says.
“They have their whole lives ahead of them. They may have been through some difficult times already and that can make them more resilient and determined to establish their independence.”
Armstrong highlights that the impact of EFYFs is not just anecdotal. There is plenty of research to back it up.
The Brotherhood of St Laurence and Launch Housing conducted an evaluation of the education, housing and employment outcomes for youth who left Victoria’s EFYFs between September 2013 – July 2017. A total of 162 alumni were surveyed and the statistics below show significant positive outcomes.
Table: Ciaran O’Mahony. Source: BSL and Launch Housing Evaluation on EFYFs Impact
One year after leaving the foyer:
- 46% had completed a new Higher Education qualification.
- 85% were working or studying
- Rough sleeping reduced from 3% to 2%
KPMG’s independent assessment of the social and economic impacts of EFYFs also highlighted up to $10 million in net benefits compared to Traditional Emergency Housing services over a 20-year period.
“All the evaluations say this is a model that works. It’s a way to intervene early in the lives of young people, and the State Government’s investment dollars would do ‘double duty’,” according to Ms Armstrong.
“They invest in something the community needs, which is homes for young people, and it will help to bring youth unemployment down. This kind of social investment is an investment in young people and not an impost.”
Afiya is the embodiment of an investment that has paid off – and she’s not the only one.
“I don’t think [my business] would be up and running if it wasn’t for the youth foyer.”
“That little help changes a person’s life. It definitely changed mine and it changed a lot of people’s lives that I know.”
If you are experiencing, or at risk, of homelessness, you can ring the 24-hour Victorian hotline for assistance 1800 825 955. For more information about Education First Youth Foyers, visit: https://www.efyfoyers.org.au/
*Pseudonym. This woman’s country of origin, university, EFYF and the name of her business, have been withheld for anonymity and safety.