It’s ten o’clock in the morning and Dan, like every other teenage boy in this city, is thinking about what he’s going to eat.
But there’s no fridge full of food here.
Last night Dan slept inside a plastic tunnel in a Launceston playground. Things aren’t good at home.
Now he’s hatching a plan. He’s noticed this park has free barbecues. Dan’s mouth waters, thinking about what he could cook up on those grease-smeared BBQ plates. But he’s got no money. And he sure as hell isn’t going to ask anyone for help.
Dan doesn’t want any hassles. He can take care of himself. Dan pictures it in his head – walking across the city to the big supermarket, picking up a meat tray. If he gets away with it, he’ll have a good feed. And if he doesn’t, he imagines he might end up at the Ashley Detention Centre where at least there’s a warm bed and three meals a day.
Dan’s about to commit a ‘survival crime’.
It’s something Anglicare sees regularly in our work with children who are homeless.
Anglicare researcher, Catherine Robinson has spent time listening to highly vulnerable young Tasmanians talk about their life experiences.
“They are amazing survivors,” she said. “These are kids who have so few possessions, that survival crime becomes part of daily life. They come from families where there’s no money, there’s no food in the cupboards and, if there is, they make sure younger siblings get it first”.
“These young people have great strength and resilience,” said Catherine. “But they don’t have a lot in their lives to call their own. They’re not OK about having filthy clothing that stinks and is unfashionable, so they’re easily picked on by other kids. They want to be like everyone else. They want to feel proud of who they are and what they look like”.
Catherine said domestic violence was the key reason children took to the streets.
“For some young people their home environment is so toxic and dangerous, that they eventually leave,” she said. “But because there’s nowhere to keep any possessions safe, and they’re constantly moving from place to place, they can’t have trinkets and the kinds of things our own kids’ rooms would be full of”.
Mardie Blair leads a team in Launceston who respond to the needs of highly vulnerable young people.
“We go out and find these kids,” she said. “Then we offer help with the basics. Often they haven’t eaten or washed for days,” said Mardie. “Sometimes they’ve found themselves in situations where people are using them. 12 and 13 year old girls having sex with adult men to put food in their bellies and a roof over their head”.
Mardie said ‘survival crimes’ were common. “We often see young people, particularly girls, who have been caught stealing for their own needs – things like deodorant and personal hygiene products,” she said.
“But you have to build a relationship with these young people before they’ll disclose to you what they’ve been stealing and why,” she said. “We tell them – you don’t need to steal anymore. Tell us what you need and we’ll get it for you. We give out food, blankets, pillows, socks, underpants…these are kids who come to us with nothing”.
Once young people’s basic needs are met, Anglicare supports young people to safely reconnect with family members, education, health care and the community. “Usually these young people don’t want a bar of us at the start,” said Mardie. “Adults have let them down in the past by not doing what they promised they’d do. They’ve been hurt”.
“But we don’t give up on these young people. No way”.
Anglicare’s research identified an urgent need for supported accommodation for older children and young people. “There are clearly opportunities to provide more practical assistance for these children and top of the list is a safe place,” said Catherine Robinson. “These young people have experienced early childhood trauma and, in older childhood when they have enough capacity to leave home, they lose their childhood and access to safety, nutrition, education, care and love”.
“These are kids taking on adult responsibilities. They are extraordinary,” she said. “Anglicare steps in to provide a safe holding point of care, love and very practical life-skills and assistance. But we need support to do this”.
“The community can also play a role in helping to educate family and friends about the key issues that face vulnerable children”.