In Melbourne’s outer south-east suburbs, Riley wanders through the rooms of a place in Glen Waverley that he called home for more than two years.

“It’s got the pool table – first thing you see, everyone’s like grabbing a pool stick and just playing pool,” Riley tells triple j Hack.

The 24-year-old remembers tending to the garden patch here in 2020, along with Sunday barbecue cook-ups and drawing in his sketchpad outside.

But he’s not reminiscing about his family home or an old share-house: Riley is visiting a communal living facility that houses 40 residents – all aged between 16 and 24 – specifically designed to help people who are at risk of, or who are experiencing, homelessness.

Advocates say it’s the kind of accommodation Australia sorely needs, with rental vacancy rates falling below one per cent in some big cities, and with more than 40,000 younger Australians needing to access homelessness services each year.

“I was pretty much couch-surfing from house to house before coming here.”

Riley spent lots of time outside for his mental health when he lived at the youth foyer in Glen Waverley, either tending to the garden patch or drawing in a sketchpad.(ABC: Arianna Lucente)

Riley’s family home is just a few suburbs away, but life became tough for him there when his dad got sick – all at a time when he was also coming to terms with his gender identity.

“It was really intense when it came to my gender identity … and that’s when my family kind of got a little bit funny about my transitioning,” he tells Hack.

“I was really disconnected a lot with my family.”

Riley ended up dropping out of school in Year 10, and his mental health got so bad that he was admitted to a psychiatric unit at one point.

But when he heard about a housing service called a ‘youth foyer’, he says life started to get easier.

“Having nice, smiley-looking support workers … it’s something I’ve never really had,” he says.

“They asked me questions about, ‘Who am I? What are your hobbies? How do you want to improve your mental health? Are you looking for employment? Are you studying?’.'”

How does a ‘youth foyer’ work?

People who live in a ‘youth foyer’ can stay for up to two years, and the Foyer Foundation says demand is far outstripping supply.

At a youth foyer, each resident gets their own unit with a kitchenette and bathroom, and there are communal areas including a full-sized kitchen, living and entertainment zone, a shared laundry, an art room, and an outdoor area with a barbecue and greenery.

Phoebe works at the Launch Housing Education First Youth Foyer in Glen Waverley and helps struggling young people get back on their feet.(ABC: Arianna Lucente)

Phoebe is a development worker, or what’s called a ‘youth coach’, at the Glen Waverley site.

They say each resident works with a youth coach to establish and work towards any number of goals.

“We go through what’s called ‘the deal’,” Phoebe says.

“Essentially, it highlights what’s expected of the young person, but also what’s expected of us as staff, and of the foyer to make sure we’re all on the same page.”

Phoebe says ‘the deal’ helps residents remain accountable to their education, training and employment commitments.

“The six areas that we work within are education, employment, civic participation, housing and living, social connections, and health and wellbeing,” Phoebe says.

There are a number of other support services available to help young people get back on their feet, ranging from life skills development, mental and physical health services, and drug and alcohol support to mentoring and employment assistance.

Phoebe says mental health referrals is also a key service that residents access.

“It’s all well and good to put somebody in a house, but if they don’t have the skills to maintain that … if they’re not mentally in a space where they’re able to take that on, it’s not going to last very long. And I’ve seen that working in crisis accommodation.

“There is a focus not just on the immediate needs,” they say.

“When a young person moves out, they have the skills and the confidence to go and thrive.”

Eighteen-year-old Ange has been living at the Education First Shepparton Youth Foyer for more than a year, and is working towards becoming an insurance broker. (Supplied: Foyer Foundation)

Ange is 18 and has been living at a youth foyer in Shepparton in northern Victoria for more than a year now.

“I was potentially homeless,” she tells Hack.

Ange had been couch-surfing at a friend’s place before moving into a youth foyer, because her family home wasn’t safe.

“It just wasn’t the best environment,” Ange says.

“There was just a bit of substance abuse, like alcohol abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse going on.

“It was really tough for me to know how to look after myself … but moving into the foyer just made my independence advance a lot.”

What’s driving youth homelessness?

Liz Cameron-Smith is the CEO of the Foyer Foundation, a national advocacy and accreditation organisation.

It has accredited 16 youth foyers, found in every state and in the ACT.

“I think we take for granted the role that our stable home and family provide for us as we’re navigating such a critical point in our lives,” Ms Cameron-Smith says.

Liz Cameron-Smith is the CEO of Foyer Foundation, the organisation behind ‘medium-term’ housing service ‘youth foyers’.(Suppled: Foyer Foundation)

According to the latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 40,000 young people access a homelessness service every year.

But Ms Cameron-Smith says she’s certain that figure is an under-count that doesn’t paint the full picture.

“It only captures those that actually ask for help,” she says.

“There are many more young people who are in this situation that perhaps haven’t built up the courage to ask for help — they might not know where to go for help.

She says homelessness is not just people living on streets – it includes people living in cars, couch-surfing or bouncing around short-term crisis accommodation.

“There is a homelessness and housing crisis, a cost-of-living crisis and a domestic violence crisis. And young people today are really sitting at the nexus of all three of these rising pressures.”

The Foyer Foundation is calling for $184 million to build 10 new accommodation sites across Australia.

“We were very pleased to see that the government has decided to direct NHIF, the National Housing Infrastructure Facility, to create a $1 billion dollar fund for youth homelessness and women and children are escaping domestic violence,” Ms Cameron-Smith says.

“We presented a list of 16 communities that are ready for investment in youth foyers, and have asked the government to consider investing in 10 of those as part of the budget.”

Ms Cameron-Smith says a ‘medium-term’ housing option provides a solution that helps break the cycle of homelessness early.

Inside a resident’s unit at the Education First Youth Foyer in Shepparton.(Supplied: Foyer Foundation)

“All young people leaving a youth foyer across Australia – 80 per cent go on to safe and secure housing, 65 per cent have decent work, with the remainder in education, and we also know that they are 60 per cent less likely to engage with the justice system.

“We have so many stories of young people who credit their time in a foyer with the moment that has really turned their life around.”

How medium-term housing can break the cycle of homelessness

Ange moved into the Shepparton youth foyer when she was 17, and it helped her finish her schooling.

“It gave me a purpose to go through year 12.”

And she was able to explore interests and work towards goals that previously felt out-of-reach.

“I really wanted to learn guitar at one stage,” she says.

“I do a bit of volunteering every now and then, and I started, a few weeks ago, an insurance broking job. So, I do some education through that job.

“Currently, I have a goal to buy a house.”

Communal living at a youth foyer can help young people build social connections and feel less isolated.(Supplied: Foyer Foundation)

Riley says living at a youth foyer changed his life.

“I pretty much had access into trying to see how I can go forward with my transition … getting medically transitioned, surgeries,” he says.

“I really wanted to drive. so … I did focus on trying to get my licence.”

His passions in art and horticulture were also fostered: Riley is currently employed at a garden centre, and has plans to sell some of his artworks online.

But both Riley and Ange admit it’s the communal living and connections they have made with other residents that have made all the difference.

“I’ve made a couple of really good friends along the way,” Ange says.

“I feel like this was the best thing of my life,” Riley reflects. “I didn’t feel like I was alone. I genuinely had a connection, like a family here.”

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