When we first met Stephanie*, she was living with her three-year-old daughter in a car. Nothing can prepare our outreach workers for the shock of finding someone who is in this position. It is difficult to imagine having to spend just one night sleeping in your car. Can you imagine raising a toddler in a car for months on end?
Despite her circumstances, Stephanie was a good mother as she tried to cover up the stark reality of their circumstances from her small child, and she drove around until her daughter fell asleep so that she wouldn't know that they were homeless.
I am sorry to say that Stephanie's story is a tragic one and sadly similar to the plight of other young people. Even more difficult to comprehend is that this is happening in our own backyard. You would think that in a country like Australia that everyone has the right to safe and affordable accommodation. This is far from the reality, as the rate of homelessness continues to increase.
Behind every face of a homeless person is a set of circumstances that lead to their tragic situation. You see, when Stephanie was in her teens, her parents asked her to leave home. Stephanie had suffered from anxieties and bipolar and her parents couldn't manage any longer. Stephanie tried to find somewhere to live and to get a job, but the continuous rejection overwhelmed her and she felt that her options were diminishing.
Tragically Stephanie became dependant on someone who was physically and emotionally abusive. Stephanie's life began to spiral out of control.
Stephanie became involved with an older man who was a drug dealer. Stephanie didn't know whom else to turn to and so became dependent on this person. In the months and years that followed, Stephanie journeyed down a path that she never imagined for herself. Stephanie then learnt that she was pregnant and during that time she witnessed violence that to this day still haunts her.
As Stephanie's daughter grew, Stephanie knew that she could no longer continue under the influence of the man that was so violent. She fled from him and resorted to living in her car. Stephanie would take long drives at night until her child fell asleep and during the day found refuge in parks and public libraries. Every day was a struggle, as she had to feed and keep her daughter from harm.
We learnt about Stephanie and her child via another outreach program. Our first priority was to find suitable accommodation for Stephanie. In the first few weeks, we had to accommodate Stephanie in a hotel, as the waiting lists, even for crisis support, are long and difficult. Finally we found more permanent accommodation in a community-housing program. There were other young mothers there, people that Stephanie could begin to forge positive relationships with. And importantly this was a safe environment for Stephanie's young child to play.
Our role at Open Family Australia is to prevent homelessness for young people. Stephanie started to feel like her future had possibilities and most importantly felt that her daughter was now in a safe place. Helping Stephanie find safe accommodation was the start of our relationship with Stephanie and her young daughter. The next stage was to provide access to counselling so that Stephanie could start to repair her feelings and life. Then we offered to match Stephanie with a professional mentor, giving her the opportunity to look at gainful employment.
A year after finding Stephanie living in her car with her toddler, Stephanie is a different person and believes she has a future.
"I can't thank Open Family Australia enough for believing in me and helping me. I never wanted to raise my child like I was and I'm eternally thankful for the helping hand that was given to me at the lowest point of my life. I will never face such circumstances again."
*Names changed to protect client privacy.