OPINION | A stark contrast of journeys through a broken system He grew up only knowing a home in public housing with a drug addicted father and a mother he adored that sadly passed at just 36, leaving him and his two teenage siblings to fend for themselves in a world of pain and trauma, entrenched in a vicious cycle of poverty. This kid was just 16. This could be the typical story of a young person accessing our Living Room health clinic or our youth focused AOD services trying to navigate a broken system and longing for guidance and hope, but it is not; this was me. I was among the very lucky few though. I had people around me that taught me how to open a bank account, to help me get a job. People that pushed for me to get my license, to trust in a good education and understand things like tax. I had sisters, friends, aunts, and cousins that pushed me to get to counselling appointments and see a GP when I needed to. People who didn’t give up. Fast forward eighteen years to February this year. I’d just returned to Melbourne from a 4-week study tour with Stanford University (US) and it was day two back at Youth Projects. I was standing on Hosier Lane having my morning espresso when I hear this woman screaming my name down the lane, “Ben… BEN – it’s me!” I could not believe my eyes. It was a woman I had not seen in some twenty years; her name is Cathy*. Her and I grew up in the same housing commission estate in Hastings where her and her six aboriginal siblings were fostered by a local family. At 34, our lives were stark contrasts. There she stood in front of me, drug affected, no teeth, physically abused, recently out of prison, separated from her 3 kids and living on the streets. She had visible wounds, her arms bruised, and her veins collapsed. Cathy’s health was clearly deteriorating, and she desperately needed clean clothes, fresh food, a shower and to see a doctor. She had been failed by the system. It was in that exact moment that I saw so clearly just how differently the fork in the road can go; our childhoods bonded by circumstance, yet our journeys in such contrast. My journey was steered by a strong support network of family, friends, and community. But Cathy’s was not. Her home life was disconnected, and she was forced to go it alone. This week marks Homelessness Week and as important as this week is to shine a light on homelessness in Australia, it frustrates me that there is still a need to dedicate an entire week to raising the profile of homelessness. On any given day, over 3.24 million Australians are living below the poverty line and 116,000 of those are experiencing homelessness – a 13.9% increase since 2006. This breaks my heart. What we need is a fundamental shift in the narrative and in our behaviour. We must acknowledge that our current system is broken – a system that was built for the masses and not the outliers. Every day we learn more about trauma, abuse, mental illness and health and we need to use these learnings to address the social determinants of health and how someone’s environment impacts their journey as a human. You cannot say to a woman who has been sexually abused, physically bashed, raped and spat on that she needs to “have a go to get a go” – she is already trying, with all her might, but the dusty, flea ridden bed the system has placed her on is not right. Nor can you say to the father of 3 kids earning minimum wage in a casual warehouse job that he’s just got to take on extra shifts and “have a go to get a go”. This father is working tirelessly just to make the basic ends meet – he’s making choices between a roof over his family’s head or food on the table; to pay registration on their car or to have hot water during winter. These people need a caring hand up. These are the people that need wrap around support that gives them access to mental health support, to social workers, to medical care and services that empower them to lead longer, healthier, and socially connected lives. I often look to Finland’s Housing First Policy that uses these principles to fundamentally change and eliminate homelessness. Through individually tailored support services, by increasing the supply of affordable rentals and embedding preventative measures Finland has won their fight against homelessness. I have spent most of this year at The Living Room and on the streets listening, learning, and asking people about their pain and trauma, trying to understand their situation and what supports they need. It has reminded me just how closely we are already following a similar approach to Finland here at Youth Projects, just at a much more localised level. With more than 2,000 people accommodated in hotels across Victoria right now to protect them from COVID-19 we are presented with a significant turning point in Australia. Last week it was announced that the initiative would be extended to April 2021 and the wrap around support services expanded. Albeit a very welcome interim solution, this is an incredibly unique opportunity for us to change peoples’ lives forever and we must act now. We know that homelessness can be solved, and I will not stop fighting to end homelessness. Fighting for a fairer system, fighting for Cathy and fighting for 16-year-old me. *A pseudonym name has been used to respect the privacy of an individual Written by Ben Vasiliou. Appointed as CEO of Youth Projects in 2017, Ben is an experienced CEO and community Board Director, who is leading the way in early intervention and prevention for young people, whilst delivering critical support to people experiencing homelessness. As a passionate advocate for the most vulnerable Australians, Ben is committed to driving significant reform and change to ensure everyone has the opportunity to be the best that they can be. Ben is well versed in building high performing organisations and his ability to combine DNA, purpose, sovereignty, and strategy is critical to Youth Projects success and has been the driving force behind our current strategic plan. Ben aims to modernise and sophisticate the nonprofit way of thinking.