Anne Mitchell is a charity worker who doesn’t mind being shouted and sworn at. For the past 15 years she’s made a weekly visit to the Flinders Street Station steps. She gets to know the homeless youngsters there so that she can help them.

Volunteers who go with her can find it a bit daunting. On her first night, one of them got heaps of abuse from a homeless girl. The volunteer backed away, scared. The next night, Anne told her to do the opposite. If the girl abused her, she said, move forward and give her a hug and say ‘Hi!’. This worked. “Kids have a hard shell and want to ‘test you out’ by making you angry,” Anne says.

“I say that every day is a new day. Look for something good in a kid, not judge them on what happened yesterday. We praise them for anything good they do. If a young person gets a job and gets fired after a week, it’s still a step forward. Maybe in their next job they’ll last a month.”

Anne is the only full-time worker for Steps Outreach Service, part of the non-denominational Concern Australia. Steps gets a lot of support in cash, food vouchers and personal support from Rotary clubs around Melbourne.

“Outreach” means visits to teenagers anywhere from Sunbury to Pakenham. Anne says, “We have to invest a lot of our time in each case. In a week we would probably each  do about eight of these visits.   We may take them to negotiate with Centrelink or housing officials, or support them through involvement with police. Drug users need complex work in counseling, detox and rehab.”

A lot of tough behavior is bravado to impress other young people, she says. On their own, a kid may be a different person. One teenaged girl wrote to Anne: “I can see you do care and I know you’re real. I have shown sides of myself to you that hardly anyone ever sees, and even when I’m feeling so down and out, I call and there you are. That means the world to me and you never judge me so once again, thank-you with all my heart.”

Steps does not apply for government funding because the conditions often don’t match what homeless people really need. Instead, Steps relies on sponsors, charities and donations. When a Rotary member in South Melbourne died, his family told mourners to donate to Steps rather than spending on flowers.  

Chronically homeless people impose a huge economic cost on society.

A recent study found that one homeless woman from the age of 12 to 21 had cost the State $5.5 million in sanctions and support.

Anne cites one success story, “Emma”, who left home at 12 to escape her abusive stepfather. Anne met her two years ago when Emma was a 16-year-old addict begging in the city and using a concrete step for a pillow at night. “Emma’s initial hostility went away and we began to meet her regularly for lunch or coffee. We gave her a birthday present when she turned 18 –   that was the only present she got.” Today Emma is reunited with her family, has a place to live and is holding a job.

“Sam”, now 19, went into care because of a violent stepfather and himself became a violent addict. Anne and volunteers helped him for months and found that he also had a softer, caring side, particularly towards young girls who were becoming street kids. Sam was able to get a small flat and then a part-time job.

 “We have successfully steered some young people at risk to programs like ‘Hand Brake Turn’ where they learn automotive skills through an eight week course backed up with social security help,” Anne says.

A critical group is young people leaving institutional care. Close to a third of them become homeless. Steps has a special program, ‘Independent Futures’ to get them through the transition into living independently in the mainstream community.

Another Steps program, ‘Breaking the Cycle’ is using a mentor to help primary and secondary school children from troubled homes to fit better into school.  This could also involve providing uniforms and a musical instrument or sports equipment. “We find a child or young person can excel in at least one thing, and we build on that, “ Anne says.

Highlight of each year is a Christmas lunch at the Collingwood headquarters, where volunteers give out food hamper bags, vouchers and presents to 150-200 people.

(Tony Thomas is a member of the RC Central Melbourne-Sunrise)