Reaching for the SKY

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In many people’s minds, the image of a typical homeless person is that of a middle-aged man, often dressed in ratty clothes and sleeping on a park bench.

But the reality of homelessness is very different. In fact, half of all people in Australia who are classified as homeless are under the age of 25. In Victoria, it is estimated that each night there are approximately 20,000 young homeless people.

Few people are more aware of this alarming statistic than Emma Crichton, Chief Executive Officer of the St Kilda Youth Service (SKYS).

SKYS engages young people from a variety of disadvantaged backgrounds who often have problems that extend beyond homelessness. Staff at SKYS regularly deals with clients who are offenders or who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction.

“A majority of our young people have poor mental health, or are sliding into mental health disorders and illness.” Says Emma. “They just haven’t fitted into mainstream life.”

These young people often find out about SKYS through word of mouth, but they are also referred by organizations such as Centrelink, the Police, schools, and welfare agencies. The advent of social media has also played a big role in raising awareness about the agency’s work.

The organization was founded around 27 years ago, having been run in its early days by a handful of volunteers out of an old church in the area.

Today, SKYS assists around 500 young people each year, providing them with one-on-one guidance and counseling and, importantly, different options for education and training.

Emma explains that SKYS has always aimed at going a step further than just education and training. It’s always been very keen on providing employment opportunities for their clients. As such, SKYS has recently established a design business called Blue SKYS media.

“Not everyone goes from homelessness to education to social enterprise – but they can,” insists Emma.

She says she has seen many once-troubled individuals go on to university or TAFE studies, and even to high-powered employment. She cites one particular young man who is now in a national management role with the Mercure chain of hotels.

“Other successes a probably a little less exciting on paper,” she says. “It might be that a young person has never had dinner with mum in their life, for example, and they have progressed to being able to sit down and chat with her over dinner for the first time.”

“The successes are so individual. But seeing young people go off to university, TAFE and employment is really satisfying,” she says.

One of the programs offered by SKYS is the HEAT program (Hospitality Employment and Training), the success of which has enabled the development of a second social enterprise in the form of a catering company.

They will hold an event on the 10th of August, ‘The 2012 HEAT is on Gala Dinner,’ which will serve as a celebration of the work done by SKYS as well as an opportunity to raise much-needed funds.

Emma is grateful for the support SKYS receives, but she insists that the need is continuous. “Without the support of the local community, we can’t do our work,” she says.

And the work that they do is incredibly important.

“If we don’t do it, these young people are going to have no chances in life. They’re not going to have shelter, places to stay. They’re going to get sick. They’re not going to have an education, or any chance of a job,” she laments.

It is no secret that over the last 50 years, St Kilda has been the focus of many of Melbourne’s social problems, including crime, prostitution and drug abuse. It has been, and continues to be, a hotspot for homelessness, too.

Today, St Kilda is a community which increasingly embraces uniqueness and diversity, and Emma feels that this makes it almost like a haven for homeless youth.

“I think people in St Kilda genuinely care about the health of the community,” she says. “I don’t think they’re afraid of homeless people. That’s why maybe a lot of homeless people come to St Kilda. Because they feel cared for here. They don’t feel like they are treated poorly, which they could be in other communities in Melbourne.”

SKYS’ head office is at 5 Duke St, St Kilda. (03) 9534 3885. SKYS is looking for corporate sponsors for its’ 2012 HEAT is on’ Gala dinner. Contact Emma on 9534 3685 or 0413 423 063.

By Phoebe Roth

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