15 March 2012
It's a sad fact that the rate of youth homelessness continues to grow in Australia. Largely due to family relationship breakdown, some young people find themselves without permanent shelter and the means to continue their education. Jo Swift, CEO of Kids Under Cover, talks to us about the pioneering work of the organisation and its positive impact on the young people they support.
Over two decades ago, President of the Variety Club, Ken Morgan, saw a gap in the support provided to Victoria's homeless young people. He started Kids Under Cover and undertook building accommodation dedicated to young people, particularly homeless young mothers.
Twenty three years on, Kids Under Cover has grown to offer assistance to young people and their families in Victoria, the ACT and Queensland, with the aim of helping at-risk young people reach their full potential by providing accommodation, study assistance and mentoring. With staff members and volunteers around the country, Jo Swift, who became CEO in 2007, leads the organisation from Melbourne. When asked about her day-to-day duties, she said "Stakeholder management and business development make up a large part of my role. We are a ‘for-purpose' business, not a ‘for-profit' business, yet, in both cases the management principles remain the same. Most importantly, however, I learned early that one phone call can turn my whole week upside down. That's the nature of dealing with families and young people in crisis. Everything becomes immediate and time is of the essence."
Youth homelessness in Australia is increasing
Dealing with families and young people in crisis is at the core of Kids Under Cover's work. "We respond to the needs of young people who are at risk of becoming homeless," Jo said. "Unfortunately, however, on any given night, there are over 100,000 homeless people in Australia with nearly half aged under 25. Yet, despite the best efforts of Government and many wonderful organisations, the rate of homelessness in Australia continues to grow. The reasons why a young person becomes homeless today are complex and involve a number of triggers. These can include conflict in the family home, blended families, mental health issues, substance abuse and physical or sexual abuse," said Jo. "Unfortunately the need for our services is growing with more families reaching crisis stage than ever before."
Buildings help re-build relationships
Kids Under Cover offers several responses to young people and families in need. One is accommodation in the form of a home-based studio. "This unique accommodation allows families to stay connected, giving them extra room to live in while providing the young person with a stable environment to grow into healthy adulthood," Jo said.
Kids Under Cover's demountable studios are constructed on the grounds of a family's or carer's home for the young person to stay temporarily. When no longer needed, the organisation dismantles the studios and moves them to another family in need. With a lifespan of approximately 15 years, the studios can be moved up to four times. So far, the program has had a significant social and economic impact. "Our studio program has been independently assessed as having a 317 per cent return on investment. The more young people we can support, the more we save Government and the community in the long run," said Jo.
Scholarships give freedom to focus
Another key area of focus for Kids Under Cover is providing educational assistance through study scholarships. Launched in 2004, the Kids Under Cover Scholarship Program, which the Bennelong Foundation supports, helps young people cover their study costs. "Any young person who has been, or is currently living in Kids Under Cover accommodation, can apply for a scholarship. We fund years 11 and 12, training courses, higher education and TAFE courses. Our focus is on providing practical assistance, such as travel tickets, books, equipment, computers and internet access. To date, we've funded everything from car registration for a young man living remotely, where a car was the only transport available, to safety boots for a young person training on a building site." As part of the scholarship program, Kids Under Cover also introduces the young person to a mentor.
Taking away the constraints of educational fees and associated costs, Kids Under Cover has found its program gives students more freedom to focus on achieving positive personal results. Testament to this is a story Jo shares about one of Kids Under Cover's scholarship recipients. "We supported a young person through a long and difficult period to see her graduate in her chosen field. Not long after, she sent us a small donation with a note that read, ‘I got my first pay cheque this week. I never thought I'd be here. I thought I'd be dead. I couldn't have done it without you. Thanks.'"
Power to change someone's life
For Jo, watching a young person join a Kids Under Cover program and seeing them progress through life with the help of a studio, scholarship and mentor, is one of the most rewarding aspects of her role. "In the beginning, we have a person who is lost and disenfranchised. What we end up with is a young person coming out the other side full of hope, confidence and opportunity. This is why I get out of bed every day and continue to do what I do: having the power to change someone's life."
Focused on improving the outcomes for at-risk young people, Kids Under Cover continues to work with several community service organisations, Government, corporate, community and philanthropic supporters to provide the financial assistance and practical support required to prevent and respond to youth homelessness. "In particular, thanks to the support of the Bennelong Foundation, Kids Under Cover can continue to offer scholarships to young people who have the passion and the motivation to go on to higher education but do not have the resources to do so."
For more information about Kids Under Cover, visit www.kuc.org.au
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