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Have you ever read the book Trainspotting? Or perhaps seen the film adaptation? For many who have, I might have stirred bitter memories of delinquent characters whose proclivity for wasting potential is matched only by the misery they engender in the minds of those who care for them. However, underneath the distracting dark humour is an important theme of youth disengagement. Scenes of a neglected existence and bleak outlook intelligently capture cultural circumstances unfavourable to living an inspired life, encapsulated by the anti-hero’s opening monologue: ‘Choose life. Choose mortgage repayments. Choose insurance. Choose sitting on the couch watching mind-numbing game shows whilst stuffing junk food into your mouth…’ (and it goes on). The arcane meaning to these words speaks louder than the anguish that burdens them, and it has been spoken by youth throughout time: ‘Present us with a hopeful and achievable option for a future, or we will carve a path against your better wishes (and our better judgement)’. A society that fails to prioritise the needs of youth is one that does not truly care for its future.

In the final quarter of 2019, I investigated symptoms of youth alienation in Canterbury, unemployment and homelessness, and came to discover two overarching truths. First, the aforementioned symptoms are becoming more acute. Second, there are incredible people in our community trying to do something about it.

‘I previously worked in youth employment, and to find an organisation that would give someone a chance and support them [idiosyncratically] was very difficult,’ says Fiona Stewart, co-founder of Cultivate Christchurch, an urban farming business that has found a way to simultaneously address issues of food and employment security. ‘That was when I really found the need to start an employment space that works around positive youth development.’ Whilst youth are employed in agriculture work with Cultivate, they are supported with career counselling and gain qualifications handy for jobs later in life.

This is crucial, as a lack of employment early in life diminishes development of cognitive skills, leading to a higher likelihood of unemployment in adulthood. Further, periods of unemployment on a young person’s curriculum vitae negatively reflect on their employability from a superficial standpoint, causing a person’s search for a job to become more desperate and less likely to be focused on meaningful career planning. The functioning of Cultivate is timely given that the rate of youth not participating in employment, education and training in Canterbury is at a 10-year high, and the post-earthquake construction boom is beginning to slow, drying up previously abundant blue-collar employment opportunities. ‘Whilst they are with us, we provide them with a space to gain an awareness for what they eventually want to achieve in life, as well as the roadmap of how to get there. We show them that by holding down a job for three months, working 30 hours a week, they have potential for further employment. And,’ Fiona assures me, ‘I am totally recharged by working around my young staff. I’d love it if they stayed.’

Head down and walking briskly, Dame Sue Bagshaw appears to always be on a mission. As a senior lecturer in paediatrics at the University of Otago and Chair of the Korowai Youth Well-Being Trust, to list just some of her roles, you would forgive her if she enjoyed a 10-minute coffee break. But a Christchurch-based hub that collates accommodation, vocational training and relevant health services for at-risk youth, a project that Sue is leading, is simply not going to build itself. ‘Wealth now comes more from ownership rather than income, so young people’s hard work, paired with third-world wages in tourism and agriculture industries, is counting for less. But, we expect them to achieve a first-world lifestyle wherein they own a house; and, if they fail it is seen as “their fault”,’ Sue tells me. Similar to Cultivate, Sue’s determination to establish the Youth Hub, or Te Hurihanga ō Rangatahi (the turning point) could not be more timely, as affordable housing in Christchurch is disappearing. ‘After paying the rent, some young people are reporting to me that they have as little as $11 a week left for food,’ says Sue. ‘We need a greater investment to address this disparate, modern nature of poverty.’

‘The problem is invisible homelessness,’ says Emma, senior clinical nurse at Youth 298, an organisation providing free and discreet health support – particularly regarding mental and sexual health – to over 5000 people a year between the ages of 10–25. ‘There are many young people resorting to couch surfing, for example, to find shelter. They are the people we see most, and are just as at-risk [as people without shelter] of slipping through the cracks in the system.’ Cases of alienated youth being neglected by society is of extreme concern to the staff at Youth 298. For example, many young people are victims of traumatic brain injury, but are not covered by ACC because they haven’t presented to health services at the time of harm. ‘They may have had a hell of a beating at the age of six, and the last thing their family is then doing is taking them to a GP. We’ve now discovered that 68 per cent of offenders at the youth unit of Christchurch Men’s Prison are victims of traumatic brain injury,’ says Dr Marie Ditchburn, Youth 298’s centre manager.

But one of the most disturbing signs of neglect, and likely the largest disconnect between generations, is the mostly unregulated presence of social media in children’s lives. Prior to 2010, if a child experienced bullying in the schoolyard, they could return to the safe environment of the home and escape the torment. ‘Now it is inescapable,’ Emma states unequivocally. She explains that children are being isolated and exploited online like no other generation has had to experience before. The situation has become so apparently absurd that many adolescents, prior to becoming sexually active, are now commonly expected by peers to send explicit photos of themselves across social media channels, as if it has become some sort of ‘social norm’. Even more abhorrent is the presence of ‘self-harm influencers’ – people who demonstrate self-harm techniques and results – on social media sites, exploiting the attention of psychologically vulnerable youths. Within such a context, wherein security is seldom found, it could be argued that nearly every child, to a certain degree, experiences homelessness.

So how does the everyday citizen contribute to solving this problem? Simple acknowledgement of modern and discriminate adversities afflicting young people is a great start. ‘It might sound grim, but there are many good-hearted people trying to make a difference,’ Marie and Emma reassure me. ‘But, the need is just massive.’ From there, Sue Bagshaw encourages employers and homeowners to step up to the plate and take a chance on youth. ‘I see a fire inside young people to change the world for the better,’ she tells me. ‘Although,’ she continues, ‘my greatest fear is that our dismissiveness will douse their flames.’

End Note:
This article is a continuation of our coverage of the inspiring individuals and organisations combating the homelessness crisis in Canterbury. To find out more about the Youth Hub, Youth 298 or Cultivate, including how you may be able to help, visit them online at youthhubchch.org.nz, 298.org.nz and cultivate.org.nz.

Words and Images Isaac McCarthy