Securing a future for youth at risk

Searching for guarantees

Consider this: your agency has been active in the community sector for 31 years, providing a vital service that makes a difference. You present to a state government committee inquiry, outlining the scale of the problem you are trying to help. Later, when the inquiry report is handed down, your agency is name-checked as an example of the innovative response to the problem that needs to be applied more often. What happens next? What do you and your organisation do? How do you take that endorsement and build momentum for change?

Jo Swift, the CEO of Kids Under Cover, is living that dilemma. In February, she followed up the Kids Under Cover submission to the Victorian Inquiry into Homelessness, with a presentation, alongside board member (and former Philanthropy Australia CEO) Sarah Davies AM and Brittnie, a previous recipient of the Kids Under Cover studio program.

Among the committee’s 51 recommendations contained in its final report tabled in the Victorian Parliament earlier this month, it said: “That the Victorian Government provides additional funding to organisations that provide innovative accommodation for young people at their family home, such as Kids Under Cover.’’ Kids Under Cover was one of the few agencies singled out for acknowledgement in the 44-page report. The Victorian Government has six months to respond to the report, and everyone trying to grapple with youth homelessness knows that time is a luxury. And where does that leave Kids Under Cover?

“Wondering what will happen next keeps me awake at night,’’ Jo says. “This is a golden opportunity for government to take significant steps towards solving homelessness across the board in Victoria.’’

But there are no guarantees and Jo is not banking on them. “To be honest, we can’t afford to sit idle and pray for a good outcome,’’ she says. “We welcome the Committee’s recommendations. We are now identifying our next steps to maximise our chances of funding success, through lobbying and advocacy. Additional funding from the Victorian Government will make a life-changing difference for our state’s most vulnerable young people.”

The report from the Parliament’s Legal and Social Issues Committee made the bold observation that Victoria could solve homelessness. However, the picture presented in the report, is of a system that is overwhelmed and crisis-oriented. The report argued that by increasing the amount of long-term accommodation and early intervention programs, Victoria could re-orient its approach to homelessness.

“Early intervention is particularly critical for those who first experienced homelessness at a young age,’’ the report says. “Prevention of homelessness amongst young people or intervening early is important to ensure that experiences of homelessness and disadvantage at a young age do not affect the life chances of an individual and increase the likelihood of ongoing homelessness into adulthood.’’

 And that’s where Kids Under Cover comes in.

Since it was established in 1989, Kids Under Cover has provided one and two-bedroomed studios for people aged between 12 and 25 who are at risk of homelessness or family breakdown. The studios are installed in the backyard of the main house and cost between $58,000-$70,000. They stay in place for as long as they are required. The program has worked so well that it has spawned several innovations, including adapting the studio program for those aged 12 to 18 who are living in out-of-home care or experiencing homelessness by providing short-term studio accommodation in foster carers’ backyards. In partnership with Anglicare Victoria, Kids Under Cover has also established the Village21 scheme that provides small village-style accommodation for those leaving state care to reduce the risk of those aged between 18 and 21 experiencing homelessness.

But the innovations cannot keep pace with demand, which has ballooned through the COVID-19 pandemic. Jo says there were 300 applications to access studios in the past financial year. Last May, Kids Under Cover was forced to temporarily close studio applications due to demand exceeding funding. In the 10 months since then, Kids Under Cover has received more than 650 additional inquiries. Allowing for the 62 studios the agency has funding to build this year – to supplement its stock of 620 studios – there is still a significant gap between new demand and the capacity to meet it. “We’re being creative about how we use our skills and resources,’’ Jo says.

While the Victorian Government has been lauded in some quarters for its announcement of $5.3 billion plan for social housing – the largest in the nation’s history - Kids Under Cover has been told there is no money for them as part of the proposed scheme. “It was devastating,’’ Jo explains.

Currently, 31 percent of Kids Under Cover funding comes from the Victorian Government, and 63 percent from philanthropic funding and individual giving. The funding mix gives Kids Under Cover a seat at the government’s table and its inquiry submission urged the government to devise a separate strategy for youth housing and youth homelessness because they are a distinct cohort with their own needs and challenges.

It also stressed the need for recognition of early intervention and prevention being the key to ending youth homelessness, in combination with increased funding of prevention programs and services. The parliamentary committee has largely agreed with that recommendation, but there is no way of knowing if that will translate into government policy. For the time being, Jo will marshal all the support she can to support the Kids Under Cover case because she knows many young people’s futures depend on it.

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