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Students Stand Up for Homeless Youth in Parliament

A team of Swinburne University students addressed the issue of youth homelessness last week for the YMCA’s 29th annual Victorian Youth Parliament. The program is held at Parliament House while actual parliament is not in session and most of our state pollies aren’t lingering around.

Youth Parliament is a program which aims to empower 120 young people from around the state, aged 16-25, by giving them the chance to voice their concerns about issues that are important to them.

Last year, the Youth Press Gallery was added into the mix to run alongside the program, not only providing coverage, but giving young journalists the opportunity to hone their skills.

During the program, each of the 20 participating teams drafts a bill to be debated during the week in Parliament House. If a bill passes, it is then forwarded on to the relevant ministers to be considered as legislation.

This year, for the first time, all 20 bills passed. This includes the Swinburne team’s ‘Increasing Opportunities for Homeless Youth’ bill, which will now be handed to Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing Martin Foley.

The bill involves establishing three “opportunity centres” within a 5 km radius of the CBD for 60 homeless youth to live, learn, acquire skills, and find employment in. Each centre, as outlined in the bill, will cater to a specific age bracket—11-14, 15-17, and 18-25—and will operate for at least the next few years.

Swinburne University students Krishna Adhikari, Fiorella Gamero, Christopher Jakobi, Xiaofei Jiang, Fleetwood McGowan, and Salonie Saxena debated their bill in the Legislative Assembly on Thursday 2 July.

Bill sponsor Krishna, who is currently studying a BA in Games and Interactivity, said the proposed centres will “not just provide a home to live in, but provide a family to belong to”.

“We present this bill because we believe there’s a difference between a house and a home,” he said.

He also stressed the importance of education for the youth living in them and stated that this will be a major focus within the centres.

During the debate, Philosophy student  Fleetwood  McGowan, who was also the Youth Premier this year, said these young people may be homeless, but they are not helpless.

They said the aim of the bill is to provide homeless youth with “the opportunities they always needed in a safe and supportive place”.

Despite the necessary criticism from the Opposition—which covered issues such as gender discrimination, the selection criteria, the termination of contracts due to illegal activities, and the capacity allocated to each centre—the bill passed unanimously, and some of the refuting Young MPs even praised the bill during the debate. The team argued that the centres will operate like a pilot program to begin with, and any issues that arise will be dealt with when they do.

One amendment was made to the bill to adjust the timeframe from two years and six months to only one year.

In a press conference after the debate, Krishna said it might be difficult to achieve what is outlined in the bill within this time frame, and expressed concerns that rushing the launch of the three centres could have negative consequences for these youth who he said are already at risk.

He believes the longer timeframe was necessary in order to establish centres that provide the support and sense of community and belonging the team had in mind when drafting the bill.

“We want them to have a sense of belonging to a place. Other centres we looked at didn’t have a sense of belonging.”

Senior Program Coordinator for Wesley Mission Ringwood’s crisis program, Maidie Graham, voiced her support for the bill.

“I think these opportunity centres sound really great—the idea of having a place that people can go and get a range of services is a really good one,” she said.

She did, however, criticise some aspects, in particular what might happen to the youth in the centres when they leave. Especially since the centres will be located so close to the city where rent is expensive, meaning most would likely have to move further out, away from the support networks they develop.

“If people are living in an area and it’s not realistic for them to get other accommodation in that area that can a bit of a problem,” she said.

When questioned about this, Krishna said the decision was due to it being easier to access education and training closer to the city, and that by the time the youth leave they should be more capable of finding employment and living a stable life.

“In terms of network support, they can obviously come back and visit,” he said.

“Our aim is for them to be able to reestablish themselves within society.”

Nathan Fioritti is a Youth Press Gallery Journalist and co-wrote this article alongside Salonie Saxena, a Swinburne Civil Engineering student.

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