For Hailey, being homeless and in high school felt like 'hell on Earth' (2024)

Hailey would often joke to her teachers that she couldn't do her homework because she didn't have a home.

The 16-year-old says humour was her way of coping with a situation that "felt like hell on Earth".

When Hailey's family found an eviction notice on the doorstep of their home in The Channon, in northern New South Wales, in early 2021 life changed.

The family had called the house their home for seven years.

"Mum would apply for literally everything on the market … and everything got knocked back," Hailey says.

During the pandemic, house prices across the Northern Rivers soared while affordable rental properties became scarce.

For 13 months, Hailey, her mum, and her younger sister couched-surfed and lived in a pop-top caravan and annex on a private property.

For Hailey, being homeless and in high school felt like 'hell on Earth' (1)

Hailey says the anxiety and stress of being homeless became all-encompassing.

"It was everywhere — at school, in my head, my heart," she says.

Struggling to access the basics like a shower, electricity, and hot food, Hailey says things like a school maths test suddenly didn't seem important.

"I was failing my classes [and] I gave up trying because I didn't see a point anymore," she says.

"I stopped looking after myself entirely and I shut out the world.

"I was suffocating and I never thought it would end."

Young people and homelessness

It's estimated 122,494 people experience homelessness each night in Australia, according to Census data.

Almost one-quarter of those are children and young people between the ages of 12 and 24.

For Hailey, being homeless and in high school felt like 'hell on Earth' (2)

Advocacy groups say the most common causes of youth homelessness are domestic and family violence, poverty, and the housing crisis.

Michelle Ackerman from Youth Off the Streets says there can be serious short- and long-term effects for young people who experience homelessness.

"[Any] trauma just gets continued and compounded every day that they're experiencing insecurity in their home life," she says.

"They might experience mental health issues because of trauma and because of the anxiety and the fear that's associated with being homeless."

Ms Ackerman says experiencing homelessness can also have a big impact on a young person's education, employment, and career opportunities.

"They experience disruption to education, which is massive for them not only in the short term, but in the long term," she says.

"And the implications it can have for employment opportunities."

Ms Ackerman says there has also been an increase in the number of young people being forced to live in overcrowded accommodation, which can also negatively impact on the health, safety, and education of young people.

"There are lots of young people living with family or friends but there are 14 people in a three-bedroom home," she says.

Youth homelessness widespread

Hailey's experience is far from an isolated case, according to Social Futures — a social justice organisation based in northern NSW.

For Hailey, being homeless and in high school felt like 'hell on Earth' (3)

In the past 12 months, the organisation has worked with more than 500 young people aged 16–24 experiencing or at risk of homelessness across the Northern Rivers.

Housing, homelessness, and employment program manager Lucie White says a lot of the region's affordable housing was destroyed during the 2022 flood, particularly in Lismore.

"What housing is left is increasing in price in a highly competitive market," she says.

During a national housing shortage, Ms White says young people, who are dealing with homelessness alone, face additional barriers because landlords are often reluctant to rent properties to a young person.

"This makes a vulnerable cohort of homeless people even more vulnerable," she says.

'Give a young person a go'

Ms White says for young people experiencing homelessness alone, case workers may need to address a wide range of barriers.

For Hailey, being homeless and in high school felt like 'hell on Earth' (4)

"To sustain housing you might need to re-engage in education, you might need to look for employment, seek support for your health and mental health, and then have support to go out and apply for rentals," she says.

On a broader scale, Ms White says there needs to be a national youth housing policy, more rental subsidies for young people to access properties, more youth workers, and an increasing awareness around youth homelessness.

"Give a young person a go," she says.

"Give them a foot in the door to have their own safe place where they can thrive and where they can finish their education."

New home, new future

Hailey and her family have since found a home.

She says she never takes for granted simple things like having a dry room to sleep and study.

For Hailey, being homeless and in high school felt like 'hell on Earth' (5)

"I no longer needed to worry about wet tarp walls, rotting crate floorboards, and mould growing on my blankets," she says.

"The experience felt like hell on Earth. But I survived."

Hailey says the stability and security of having a home has helped her life return to normal.

"I'm going back to the person I was before it all happened," she says.

"I'm more outgoing now, I have friends over all the time … I try to do my assignments as quickly as possible.

"I do actually have a future to focus on now."

Read Hailey's winning Takeover Lismore story here.

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For Hailey, being homeless and in high school felt like 'hell on Earth' (2024)
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