July 1, 2022

Breathing space

“I used to shut down. Just the thought of coming home was … it was pretty bad.”

Although Tessa* already had her five boys with her at home, she still felt compelled to take in one of their teenage friends who was having trouble living at his own home. She finds it difficult to understand why there aren’t more people willing to open their homes to young people who have nowhere else to go.

“I’ve seen the harm that being forced out of home when you’re too young can bring,” she says. “I’ve lived how it destroys you. I wouldn’t wish that on any child and I would do anything I could to avoid it happening.”

All of Tessa’s sons have varying degrees of learning and behavioural difficulties. In the early days, Tessa was involved in an abusive relationship. Her boys were exposed to violence and, as they grew, became quite violent themselves. At times, the tension within her small house was so intense she wouldn’t want to come home.

“It was hell. Constant tension. Sometimes I’d have to go to Melbourne for whatever and by the time I got close to home, driving back, I’d have to pull over because my mind would start falling asleep. I used to shut down. Just the thought of coming home was … it was pretty bad. The physical impact was that I’d sort of collapse, in a way, with anxiety.”

Another mother, Steph*, found herself living in a similar kind of chaos.

When she was forced to leave her rented farmhouse because the electricity was being ‘discontinued’ she was several months pregnant, her relationship had broken down and the only affordable housing options were being snapped up before she had a chance to apply.

“I was completely overwhelmed,” Steph explains. “I didn’t know what to do. I was just getting bigger and bigger, the baby was just getting closer and closer. And my middle son (then 12) was trying different medications for mental health issues. It didn’t leave a lot of time for me to be there for my daughter who was so worried we were going to have nowhere to live. It was just so chaotic and so hectic. I didn’t see an outcome. I didn’t see any hope. All I could think about was that we weren’t going to have anywhere to bring the baby home to.”

“It gave me space to breathe and allowed me to start healing my household.”

When Steph was eventually offered a solution through social housing it was a massive relief. Although it wasn’t long before the crowded conditions inside the home meant there was a new risk – losing her daughter to homelessness.

“She started talking at a young age of moving out. And just wanting space. It was just so chaotic. When she was home, I could see the tension and the stress. She wouldn’t come out of the bedroom because it was so hectic everywhere else. Her and her brother clash. And because of the proximity of them in the house, she was very quickly plotting a plan to move out.”

Both Tessa and Steph’s families received a Kids Under Cover studio to help provide some breathing space. The studio would accommodate the eldest kids – giving them their own living space while keeping them connected to their family.

“It has made 100% the world of difference,” Steph says. “If she hadn’t had the studio to be able to study in, I don’t think she would have completed year 12. She needs her space. So I think it’s been absolutely life-changing to the way she’s been able to focus, to have that distance from her siblings.”

“As a kid growing up, you need somewhere you just know is a safe place. Somewhere that’s always there. Somewhere you know is not going to get taken away from you.”

Tessa is keen to point out the impact the studio has had not only for her boys, but for her own well-being and ability to cope.

“For me, it’s like being able to breathe now. It’s impacted my ability to make decisions. It gave me space to breathe and allowed me to start healing my household. It gave me the space to step back, rather than just be drowned by everything that was going on. It gave me time to heal enough to build my own strength.”

It gives young people a place to be centred and safe and themselves. You can’t do that when you’re sharing and everything around you is a whirl of activity. I had kids in the lounge room, I had kids on the porch at one stage, I had kids in the laundry just trying to find their own space. That’s how desperate they were.”

It’s actually amazing. I don’t think people realise. Just having a studio in the back yard – I don’t think people understand just how life changing it can be.”

* Names changed to protect identities

Family violence is the main reason that 67% of Australia’s homeless population are women and girls. A severe lack of available social and affordable housing drives many women to return to their perpetrators or alternatively into homelessness. Stable housing is critical for women to be able to provide safety and wellbeing, including for children.
Nowhere to Go report – Equity economics