A young Auckland couple are digging into their own pockets to build the first 24-hour youth emergency centre in the country.

Aaron and Summer Hendry are using their savings to build a service that will offer wraparound support for young people sleeping rough, including 24/7 accommodation, health services and legal advice.

The couple have been involved in youth homelessness projects for more than a decade. This year, they decided to start their own organisation, Kick Back, with a focus on filling the gap on support for at-risk children and young adults.

Aaron said the idea came from frustration and “seeing the harm that is occurring right now and how the emergency accommodation system doesn’t provide a safety net for those young people”.

“[The idea came] in an attempt to provide a response to youth homelessness and to ensure that no young person ends up in motels anymore, because that system is just completely destroying young people’s lives and causing immense harm and suffering to them.”

So he created Kick Back, “a youth development organisation focused on responding to youth homelessness”.

“We started because we recognised that there were some key gaps in services and supports for rangatahi who experience homelessness, and want to be a part of the solution.”

One of the major projects Aaron was trying to get off the ground was The Front Door, a 24/7 immediate accommodation service for young people at risk.

“Our focus has really been around all that crisis intervention space. What we’re trying to provide is a space where you can come and have a safe environment. [It] doesn’t matter what time of day it is — it could be 2am and you’d be able to walk in and get not only a bed, but also healthcare, mental health support, programs for your well-being, your identity.

“The service is going to help you to get into sustainable housing as swiftly as possible, or [to] get you reconnected to whānau or whatever it is that you really need.”

One of the biggest challenges was to find a central location for the services to run, he said.

“We hope for it to be 24/7, but to start it’ll be a space for young people to come and get their instant advocacy, instant support, instant connection.

“[Finding a place] is our first step and we’re really hoping to find the right location in the city centre to get that started in the new year. We have been speaking to the council, politicians, associations and other organisations to see if anyone would be interested in helping out.”

Making a difference

While funding remained an issue, the couple decided to go ahead and tighten their belts for a greater good. Summer said the trade-off just did not seem like a lot.

“These kids deserve so much more, and us doing it a bit tougher than we would, it doesn’t even compare to the lives and to the injustice that they’re facing every single day.

“We stop going out to eat for the most part, we figure out how to eat less meat and things like that, and the trade-off is that people’s lives are completely different. It just doesn’t even seem comparable.”

She said the majority of the costs came from lost wages.

“What we live off is actually what [Aaron] is earning — those very hard, very long hours with the paid contracts he has.

“So hopefully eventually it will be funding enough for him to get paid [by Kick Back], which means he’ll be able to focus more time on [the organisation].

Aaron said it was worth the sacrifice.

“I believe it is totally possible to end homelessness and alter or end the reality of children sleeping on our streets. We just want to be a small part in making this happen.”

A sense of belonging for rangatahi

Tane*, 20, was living homeless in South Auckland for weeks after his family got evicted.

“I did get some housing after that with some extended family, but that didn’t go too well and ended up getting kicked out of their house, and I became homeless. It was a hard time, I struggled.”

He said services such as The Front Door would bring young people at risk a sense of belonging.

“If we already had a 24/7 service for youth, that would have changed the course of how things would have turned out for me, just knowing that a service like that is available sort of brings a sense of hope. It brings a sense of, you know, I’m actually not alone and there are people out there that are fighting the same battle as me.”

Maia*, 22, had been moving from motel to motel for the past few years. They said the current emergency housing system for young people was not adequate for their needs.

“Just kind of feels like very dehumanising. It’s only a room, not a home. It’s a very low standard of living.”

She said initiatives like the Hendrys would help support those most in need.

“Imagine a place where young people could come that’ll actually be safe and connect them to a way to get out of that situation permanently, rather than just rot for months in these emergency motels.

“[Projects like the Hendrys] will prevent people from going down these paths of cycles of becoming homeless and going around different places constantly, but never actually finding a resolution. It will prevent people from going downhill in the first place”

‘Room for everybody’ – charity

Mana Services focused on providing care solutions for tamariki and their communities, and was supporting Aaron with The Front Door project.

Chief executive Lachlan Sloan said charitable organisations’ limited funding was an issue when it came to supporting new projects.

“In the social services sector, every organisation is probably maxing out their funding to deliver their existing services and, in some cases, really going kind of beyond the line and almost dipping into their own pocket to try and stay afloat.

“When you come up with an initiative of this sort of scale, you’ve either got to ask a lot of small service providers for any surplus, which is usually not available, [you have to] try charitable or philanthropic donations or leverage local or central government.”

Sloan said initiatives like The Front Door needed to be looked at as an investment, rather than an expense.

“We know for a fact that if we address homelessness for youth, then the chances of health outcomes and reliance on social services later in life are reduced significantly.

“In New Zealand we tend to be more interested in investing in the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, then the upfront cost of something that might appear to be a bit more expensive at the top.

“If you looked at it over the lifetime of the solution, [it] would be of a far less cost.”

He said more people should get involved.

“We [ask] the community and anybody that, if they feel like they can get involved and can play a part, then there’s room for everybody.

“[The Front Door] is one of those initiatives that needs a collective response.”

Motels a last resort – ministry

Karen Hocking, Ministry of Social Development (MSD) group general manager, said she understood how destabilising it could be for young people experiencing housing deprivation or homelessness.

“We don’t want to see anyone in this situation. The long-term solution is increasing the supply of affordable housing nationwide, which is why the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development is leading a major programme of work across government to address this.”

She said the ministry worked closely with community organisations and other agencies to help families find and sustain long-term housing.

“Youths under the age of 16 who need wrap-around support are supported by Oranga Tamariki.

“Those aged 16 to 19 are helped by MSD’s Youth Service, which works to understand each young person’s particular situation, and how MSD can best support them.”

This included a range of support pathways, Hocking said.

“Financial support to help stay with extended family or friends, help if they are behind on rent, help with bond for a new property, help finding accommodation they can afford, help with the cost of shifting to another suitable place, help negotiating with their landlord to retain a tenancy, or help accessing services to address any underlying issues contributing to their situation, such as drug and alcohol counselling.”

She said if nothing worked, emergency housing was the next step.

“If none of these options are suitable, we will help a young person find emergency housing, and will continue to support them in their search for a longer-term solution, including transitional or public housing.

“We understand that emergency housing is not always an ideal solution, but it is preferable to people sleeping rough or in cars. It’s important to note that it is not our first option – it is a last resort.”

By Rayssa Almeida of rnz.co.nz

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