Maintaining school while surviving homelessness
“I cannot imagine not knowing where you are going to stay. Not having eaten, not having showered, but still wanting to come to school and finish year 12. That goes to show a great strength of character and enormous courage.” – Dina Shaw, Salvation Army Youth Worker Youth Outreach Service (YOS)
There is a beautiful inscribed glass plaque that takes pride of place in Nikki’s new home – the first private rental home that she and her partner have been able to secure after many years of homelessness.
The plaque is The Salvation Army Youth Outreach Services’ treasured Community Spirit Award.
“It’s quite beautiful. I love it,” Nikki smiles softly.
For the Year 12 student at the YOS Lawnton Flexi-School, it is a symbol of what she has achieved – the completion of Year 11, plus a Certificate II in Hospitality and now half of Year 12. Throughout all of that, Nikki has seriously struggled with homelessness, plus she has had to deal with the complex range of factors that initially led to her homelessness.
Nikki says her personal struggle began almost three years ago.
“I was involved in something that had a major impact on my life,” she explains. “It ruined me, I went completely downhill, and unfortunately hit rock bottom. I ended up with post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Soon, she says, conflict steadily grew at home and school.
“I couldn’t go one day at school without breaking down, getting into trouble, going home, or even getting sent up to see mental health.”
Her issues snowballed, and she was placed into a psychiatric ward twice with multiple hospital stays. Nikki says she eventually left home to try and live her own life and sort out her issues. However, she was soon expelled from school and says she “gave up completely” on her education.
In time, Nikki realised how much she wanted, and needed, to keep learning.
“I honestly thought I was dumb,” she says. “I just didn’t feel like I knew anything – and even the stuff I had known, I didn’t know anymore. So I decided to see what kind of education I could find.”
While Nikki and her partner were living rough – in a tent under a stage in a park – a friend told her about YOS.
“It was the best decision of my life,” she says. “In the first two weeks I was already in love with it. I was smashing out the work and I was right into it. I was so keen!”
Nikki says when she received her first report card she “nearly cried hearing the comments and results. I was so proud!”
While there were periods of time she felt she simply couldn’t face school with no access to clean clothes or showers, the flexibility of the program and the support of youth worker Dina kept her coming back.
“Every time I did go to school, I’d smash out the work and I’d be back up-to-date every time,” she says.
Incredibly grateful to the staff at YOS and supporters of the service, Nikki says: “They’ve helped us out with finance issues, they’ve helped out with food, accommodation, everything. When I have bad days at school and just need to cry and rant, Dina’s always there to listen.
“I go to school and I’m happy. I love [everyone at] YOS! I cannot put into words what I feel for them – they’re just amazing people. They’ve definitely changed my life. They’ve shown me different perspectives and how to look on the bright side.”
Nikki gave a speech at the YOS 2015 graduation and now shares her story to help others. “They (YOS staff) really help the people that genuinely need the help,” she says. “I tell all the kids at school, ‘Ifyou show them that you genuinely want to make your life the best you can make it; they’ll do anything possible to do that for you. If they have to drive you somewhere, if they have to pay for something for you, they’ll make it happen. If you do want the help, (with YOS) there’s always someone in your corner!”
The dark side to couch surfing
When “home” is no longer an option for a young person, many turn to extended family, friends or even strangers for a place to stay. Sleeping on couches – or “couch surfing” – might sound like someone isn’t truly experiencing homelessness, but they are. Homelessness includes lacking a sense of security, stability, privacy and safety. As Nikki shares, couch surfing can be very dangerous…
“This was the first time since we’d been homeless, that we’d actually been couch surfing. (The first time we pitched a tent under a stage.) We were with a guy for about a month and he and his missus were always saying, ‘It’s fine, you can stay with us for as long as you need’, but his mum would text me, threatening me, saying her son doesn’t need people staying there.
“We were just about to get out of their hair. It was just that one last night and we ended up falling asleep on the couch. The whole house was locked and his mother broke in and stood over me; yelled at me and hit me … I was confused; I was shocked. I was hearing one thing from the owner of the place and a different thing from his mother.
“We kept on telling them – if it’s too much of a hassle us staying here, please let us know. We will move. His mum treated us like we weren’t even there or we didn’t belong; like we were outcasts.”