Building a better platform for our youth

AFTER 28 years working with Western Sydney’s homeless and disadvantaged youth there’s some things that still lie heavily on Stephanie Oatley’s heart.

Like the time last year when two teenagers in her care, aged 16 and 17, broke down in tears.

“They really couldn’t get a grasp on why anyone was buying them a present at Christmas time,” she recalls.

“They had never really received a present in their entire lives at Christmas. I’ve got to say, things like that still lie really heavily on my heart.”

Or the times when a dress or hairdresser is provided to help prepare for a school formal.

“The young people can’t believe it. But that’s where they should be at, that’s where their focus should be rather than ‘how am I going to afford my electricity bill’, and ‘how am I going to heat my house in winter’.

“Why should these kids have to go out in the big world and do it all themselves when they should be at school?”

Ms Oatley is the chief executive of Nepean Blue Mountains Hawkesbury -based Platform Youth Services, a not-for-profit youth accommodation service established in 2013 to support young people with a history of homelessness and disadvantage to receive the education required to succeed in adulthood.

Although formed in 2013 the service actually dates back some 40 years in different incarnations.

Platform  is the first recipient of Lendlease’s FutureSteps program, a philanthropic initiative aimed at addressing and helping prevent homelessness in Australia.

Lendlease Property chief executive Kylie Rampa says Platform Youth will be just the start of something far bigger with a national rollout planned for 2019. 

“FutureSteps will be an enduring initiative, grounded in the belief that everyone in society should have access to safe and secure housing," Kylie Rampa, CEO, Property Australia

“It’s a first for Lendlease and a first for an Australian property company. It means we’ll be directing a portion of every new residential dwelling and land lot sale towards doing better via our own charitable fund. 

“Lendlease will provide both financial support and the skills of our people to assist Platform Youth.”

The first project will see our people provide their time and skills to refurbish Platform Youth’s Lemongrove House, which will accommodate 6-8 students aged between 16-21 years. FutureSteps will help pay their living costs so, Stephanie says, “they can really just focus on their education and not worry about the stress of where they are going to live and where they  are going to move to next, and how they are going to afford it”.

The young people  at Lemongrove will benefit from what Stephanie calls the “education and employment package” being developed with TAFE providing additional resources  for  six young people   whilst also receiving employment with a local club in aged care or hospitality. According to Ms Oatley education is one of two key areas Australia needs to get on top of if it ever wants to solve youth homelessness.

“Education is the one thing you cannot take away from someone,” she says.

“Research has shown, over and over and over, that education is the one thing that can break the cycle of homelessness because education leads to jobs, which leads to income, which leads to private rental.” 

The second area is housing affordability, especially for those youth who often cannot afford to pay rent, which, according to Stephanie, can lead to young lives spiralling out of control.

“So young people couch surf, they sleep in their cars, they drop out of education, they drop out of employment , they lose their social connections and then mental health issues starts, depression kicks in and within 6-12 months they are in crisis. 

“Housing affordability is key.”

In her 28 years working in the area, the big changes Stephanie has noticed are the rise and impact  of mental illness, and poverty’s claws sharpening its grip on families, leading to family breakdown, the combination of which Stephanie says is “a real driver of homelessness”. 

“Back in the early 1990s within the youth homelesssness environment there was a lot more drug dependence and alcohol abuse. It was  more street smart.  What we are now seeing with young people is less of the street, and more mental health issues, more anxiety, more depression, more abandonment and more feelings of failure.

“Mental health is the biggest issue we see. These young people feel they don’t belong anywhere.”

Which, according to Stephanie, is where corporate Australia needs to step up.

“To have a bit of corporate sponsorship is a huge, huge, huge bonus,” she says. 

“Accessing the kinds of services corporates can provide allows us to think of more creative ways to address the issues.” 

It just may be a way to break the old cycle of welfare dependency.

“I think the message it sends is that someone else does care about them, that they are worthy and that they are valued. I want to make sure these kids receive the same opportunities as others.”

To donate to FutureSteps, click here.