Delivering support through the complexities of COVID

A Q&A with Kids Under Cover Head of Programs Pete Zwiers

Despite the upheaval we’ve all experienced as a backdrop to the pandemic, Kids Under Cover have maintained their provision of studios to families at a time when extra space has been more critical than ever. Head of Programs, Pete Zwiers explains the impact of COVID on overcrowded households, the benefit of space and what we can all learn about the way we offer support.


Q: How did the pandemic – and the lockdowns that came with it – impact the families Kids Under Cover are working to support?

A: A few things come to mind there. One is to do with the nature of secure work, all the shutdowns and the effect they had on employment. Especially the kind of work young people are involved in like hospitality. For people who are already struggling with rental affordability, to then lose employment and having to move back home just increases pressure and increases the risk of homelessness due to rise in conflict and stress. Unemployment is another complexity that adds to the dynamic of what’s happening in a household.

There’s also the impact on engaging with education. Imagine three or four kids only having a kitchen table to try and study at because their bedrooms just don’t have the space. Issues with internet access, difficulties connecting with teachers, disengagement… Everyone’s stress levels rose through trying to homeschool and when you’re already in a household that’s already short on space and you can’t leave – that’s a recipe for a rise in conflict, an added complexity with bad results.

We also saw the heightened anxiety through our maintenance crews. Obviously, we put in a lot of safety protocols, but some carers were saying ‘no that’s just not enough’. How can they measure what the risk is? And it’s totally valid for people to feel that way. A lot of these households are already dealing with anxiety or mental health issues or behavioural difficulties… and it all just compounded everything. We all felt the sense of desperation. Particularly from carers who were on the waiting list to have a studio provided. Which is completely understandable. So the waiting added to their anxiety, they were crying out for the extra space. What a terrible combination of circumstances.


Q: Many of us experienced the challenges of a being confined to a busy household during lockdowns, how does living in an overcrowded space affect healthy development for a young person?

A: Without adequate space, young people who are trying to guard their sense of self and develop into who they are, are really robbed of that opportunity. They simply can’t achieve that. The chaos of an overcrowded home is extremely limiting for development.

If you put yourself in their shoes, how would you go if you had no privacy. At all. If there was nowhere you could retreat to, just to read a book or just to have time with your own thoughts. Or imagine you couldn’t sit down and chill out in the loungeroom because the lounge is someone’s bedroom ¬– all of those things that we all do just to switch off. And if you can’t switch off that level of stress builds and you can’t really express yourself.

So, for a young person who’s going through all those changes – growing physically and mentally – it can lead to a feeling of despair. It’s been proven that if you don’t feel safe within those four walls, you’ll have a very hard time working through your thoughts and being able to venture out from that family base into the world with confidence. You need that space to be able to do that. And that’s all we want, just to give them that chance.


Q: How did the restrictions imposed by COVID impact the construction of Kids Under Cover studios?

A: Luckily, we are an essential service. So we never had to stop. But there were certainly some restrictions that made life more difficult. There was a period where we couldn’t leave Melbourne, or travel interstate. But all in all, we’ve been really fortunate that we could continue what we were doing. But it was tense. There were times we had to pull our maintenance crew off the road, partly due to restrictions and partly due to trying to look after their safety. And that’s a really important part of the relationship we have with families, for them to see us and to touch base. So while we have been able to continue, it has been under very different and sometimes difficult circumstances. Our whole relationship with the families we hope to help out had another layer of sensitivity. We’ve been very conscious of that.


Q: Tell us about the difficulty you had in making the decision to close applications for studios due to overwhelming demand at a time when the extra space a studio provides was needed perhaps more than ever.

A: It was certainly difficult when you look from an empathetic viewpoint. But it wasn’t difficult in terms of the decision we were presented with. Just the overwhelming demand meant we had no choice. We closed applications and then we started working through the waiting list that we had. And it took us 18 months just to service the waiting list with no extra applications.

The whole time we were taking more and more enquiries. Demand went from around 150 applications in a year to about 600. And usually applications come from Community Service Organisations, but the people who were calling us more than ever were the families – calling us directly. Just reaching out for help. And we just couldn’t help them. There’s a toll that takes on our staff too. Being on the front line, taking those enquiries and not being able to help. Everyone wants to do everything they can but we can only do what we can do.


Q: Why do you think there was such an increased urgency for support over the past two years?

A: No-one’s felt the effect of the lack of space more. Particularly when they had no choice but to stay there. The heightened anxiety to go along with that. Unemployment, mental health, conflict – all of the factors were exacerbated during lockdowns. And families become desperate. They need help.

It might take a while sometimes for families to understand that that the circumstances they’re in are actually untenable. And that there could be a risk that the young people in that household will want to leave. Often, they don’t know that there’s help available. But when those walls close in, because there’s nowhere else to go, I guess you make the extra effort to reach out. To try to find a solution.


Q: How did the benefits of providing a young person with a studio become more obvious in the context of the pandemic and lockdowns.

A – When everybody’s forced to stay home, everything’s exacerbated. And that extra space just becomes more important. Everyone’s struggling through home schooling, the threat to their jobs, the stress of… everything! To be able to step into your own retreat and close the door behind you and not have to listen to the arguments or feel the tension in the air, that’s just a blessing. It’s actually alleviating a very real danger. The risk of that path to homelessness that we’re trying to prevent.


Q: What have we learnt about our community after the experience of the past two years? How might we change the way we provide support for families doing it tough?

A: We’ve definitely seen a very sharp rise in households experiencing challenges with mental health. So that shows me there’s a need for more support with mental health for young people. The Victorian Government’s Royal Commission into the mental health system is a good start. And we look forward to seeing the positive outcomes that come from that.

So, from that enquiry and from our whole experience of the last two years, I think it just highlights the importance of what we’re trying to do. We need a range of options. We need the government to continue to invest in future outcomes for our young people. We have some investment in social housing which is fantastic but we need a range of other options to go with that. We’ve seen through the response to this crisis that when the political will is there, things get solved. Unfortunately, it’s expensive. And someone’s got to pay for it. But we’ve seen that there is a way, it’s just about the will.

This experience also highlights the importance of prevention. If we focused more on prevention we wouldn’t have to do so much down the track. Investing in those prevention dollars pays for itself. Be it long-term homelessness or avoiding the costs of residential care for young people. And not only the dollar cost but the cost of opportunity for those young people. People who enter essential care or homelessness at a young age have a really high chance of poor outcomes. So if we can prevent that, wouldn’t that be fantastic. From a dollar sense but also from a social benefit sense. For everyone. For society.


This article was originally published in Parity Magazine’s April 2022 edition.