Beating youth homelessness one coffee at a time

Originally published on Hijacked (23 April 2015)

When Rubie Ozcan left behind the world of mainstream hospitality, she didn’t go very far. These days, you’ll still find her in an apron behind a café counter. Only, now she works at STREAT, a string of Melbourne cafes which train the city’s young and homeless for employment. And she’s never been happier.

Having studied social work at RMIT University, Rubie is well and truly at home as store manager of the campus STREAT café, which now trains one young person every day of the week.

“It’s a wonderful learning environment for all of us – the trainees and the staff,” Rubie tells Hijacked. “After working in a pretty competitive hospitality industry for the last ten years, I’ve learnt to be more compassionate and to try to understand what’s happening in the background for our trainees.”

But, for many of us, homelessness is that something happening in the background, in our peripherals and street edges. Tonight around 105,000 Australians will have nowhere to sleep. Almost half of those people will be under 25.

Council to Homeless Persons CEO Jenny Smith says that many young people are driven into homelessness due to family breakdown, violence, or financial crisis.

“The most critical thing for the homelessness sector is getting in early before the harmful effects take hold,” Jenny tells Hijacked.

At STREAT, that’s all about bringing good food, great mentors and young people in need together. Now celebrating its fifth year, the enterprise has already put over 320 vulnerable youth through its award-winning training programs – 80 percent of who have gone on to find further employment or education.

“We hope to get them ready to apply for a job with the same skills as anyone else,” says Rubie. “It’s not about employers helping this person out. It’s about getting trainees up there with the best so it’s an even playing field.”

STREAT Marketing Manager Ian Johnson admits that helping trainees adjust to early morning shifts can sometimes be challenging.

“Young people who are homeless generally live a chaotic lifestyle,” Ian tells Hijacked. “They might be up until four am because they’re too scared to sleep, so it can be tough for them to start. But, once they bond with our social workers, we find they really just love the programme.”

“Even when they graduate and they end up with a qualification, the thing they value most is that they belonged somewhere, that they were looked after and they have some belief in themselves again.”

The other alternative – a life of prolonged homeless – is what Ian terms “a death sentence.”

“The average life expectancy of a homeless person is 47-years-old. Ours is 85.”

 Last month (and just ahead of Youth Homelessness Matters Day), the federal government at last extended the National Partnership on Homelessness, first set up by the Rudd government in 2009, by another two years. Of the $230 million in funding to be delivered, priority will be given to domestic violence victims and young people.

But, the causes of homelessness may be too complex for any one piece of legislation to contain.

“We can’t have a conversation about youth homelessness which doesn’t also consider our approach to family violence, family reconciliation programs, housing affordability and education frameworks,” says Jenny Smith from the Council to Homeless Persons.

At STREAT, Ian Johnson agrees a “holistic approach” works best.

“We wrap around a bunch of supports and skills for our trainees and no matter what problem they have, whether its physical health, mental health, family violence, drugs or alcohol, we work with services to get them the help they need.”

Of course, considering Australia has been without a Minister of Housing and Homelessness since 2013, government reform hasn’t always been too effective at integrating services.

“It’s critical we have a Cabinet Minister representing these issues at a national level and drawing together the threads between the different drivers and responses,” says Jenny. “Since the removal of this portfolio, we have seen homelessness and housing wane in the national political debate.”

Fortunately, last week’s Youth Homelessness Matters Day threw the issue back into the spotlight – if only for a moment. The campaign has been run by the National Youth Coalition for Housing (a partner of the Council to Homeless Persons) for twenty-five years now and encourages engagement from the community as well as the government.

It’s an idea that STREAT has embraced with both oven mitts. The café chain asks its customers to “Pay it Forward” by using loyalty cards which earn a homeless person a free meal or coffee for every ten they buy themselves.

“Our customers have bought well over a million coffees and meals from us by now,” says Ian. “That’s also generated something like 37,500 hours of training for over 300 young people. Customers see that by deciding where they have their coffee they can really change lives.”

And, while that change may be slow by national measures, on a personal level it’s often lightning fast.

“Once they’re serving customers or working in our catering kitchen, you’d be amazed at how quickly – within three or four weeks – these young people start to learn and grow confident again,” says Ian.

At the RMIT campus café, Rubie has daily proof of this.

“We had a trainee once who was so shy she sat on the side for most of her first shift,” says Rubie. “By week six, she was on the till, chatting with customers. She ended up being the most talkative trainee I’ve ever had. She just flourished.”

Perhaps, then, it doesn’t take quite as much as we think to turn someone’s life around. At STREAT, the ingredients are simple: compassion, generosity – and good coffee.

By Sherryn Groch

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