New South Wales has one of the largest incidences of youth homelessness in Australia, and one of the leading causes is domestic and family violence. For Alex* home life reached a point of no return during the pandemic. But knocking on the door of youth homelessness services has led to finding a place where he can be himself — without needing to wear a mask.

Published in SBS News

Before the lockdown, New South Wales had more than 9000 young people in a state of homelessness. And since the pandemic, youth homelessness has been on the rise.

In New South Wales, over the last three months, some specialist homelessness services have seen a 60 per cent increase in referrals – that’s compared to the previous three months before the outbreak of COVID-19.

Alex* is one of those young people who has been seeking help from homelessness services in Sydney. He says home life with his family wasn’t always the best — and then he hit a breaking point. Within a strict family upbringing, he had to hide his sexuality and lack of religion, and felt constantly monitored.

“I just had enough one day and I hoped that moving out for a bit, leaving to go to a homeless shelter would stick to them, I suppose and cause them to change. Because whatever was happening was not sustainable,” Alex told The Feed.

Alex’s situation of family violence isn’t uncommon when it comes to youth homelessness.

Pam Barker told The Feed, domestic and family violence is one of the leading factors contributing to this.

“Domestic and family violence is on the rise and we know through the Link2Home, which is the support phone number, the DV line, and other data gathered through those mediums that the calls and the web searches on domestic and family violence has increased,” said Barker, CEO of Yfoundations, NSW peak body for youth homelessness.

“So we’re seeing young people who are survivors of domestic and family violence, who are becoming homeless.”

Before the outbreak, a survey on youth homelessness found more than 56 per cent of homeless young people reported they had to leave home at least once because of violence between parents or guardians.

In April, NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said since the first recorded case of COVID-19, Google searches for ‘Domestic Violence’ had increased by 75 per cent.

“I have to do everything I can to make sure that she doesn’t get angry”

Alex remembers the tension with his mother ever since he was a child. To Alex, she was a very strict and unforgiving presence in his life. He says the grudges held by his mum made him feel like he was “just walking on eggshells.”

“Make one mistake and you can expect that same mistake to be brought up years and years and years later. And it just causes so many fights. I have to do everything I can to make sure that she doesn’t get angry,” Alex said.

He recalls screening whatever he was watching, on TV or online, whenever his mum was present. Alex says his mother has a “very traditional view on how women should dress” — that meant a female character with “slightly revealing clothing” would cause a fight.

“I just have to screen everything I watch, do or play all the time before I actually do it,” he said.

“It was suffocating. And then when I do eventually make a mistake in terms of that then fight. And she might get violent depending on how hostile her mood is and how hostile my mood is — it wasn’t healthy.”

“We sin with our thoughts”

Alex grew up in a first generation Christian Filipino Australian household. To “survive” as he says, Alex had to wear a mask whenever he was home. It meant hiding his atheism, and sexuality.

“I had to pretend that I was actually Christian and just agree with them when it comes to church, and agree with what the teachings,” he said.

“It just sucks because I really disagree with a lot of it. Because a lot of it’s destructive for me.”

He recalls a belief he says his mum strongly professes: we sin with our thoughts. Alex says, it messed him up.

“I have a ton of intrusive thoughts all the time. And it just made me feel bad for having those thoughts when in reality, I don’t really have any control over them,” he said.

Alex felt tied to his family. He felt hiding parts of himself was the only answer.

“You just had a role and you had to fit that role instead of being a person. And I was nothing more than just an extension of my parents sort of will.

“My future was planned out for me and I was expected to follow that future to the best of my ability.”

“Even though it’s a pandemic, I’d say I just never felt more free”

Alex is continuing to study his double degree in nursing and business remotely at the crisis refuge centre at Youth Off The Streets. With their help, he’s preparing to move to transitional housing where he will have his own space, for the first time in his life.

“I want to be me. That’s the main thing. Now I’m getting more and more control of my life. I want to do everything I only just thought of doing,” he said.

“Recently I’ve been exploring my sexuality more, and I don’t think it would be accepted in my [parents] household in general.

“I want to…this is a bit weird but I want to try crossdressing. I want to go out more, I want to actually enjoy the things I enjoy.”

Alex has tried crossdressing, and he’s enjoyed being able to express himself. He credits the newfound confidence to his best friend and his caseworker.

“It’s a relief I suppose weirdly enough, even though it’s a pandemic, I’d say I just never felt more free,” he said.

“I feel less tense about everything. There’s people here who are pushing me to be independent and I’ve never been happier.”

And those intrusive thoughts — Alex doesn’t worry about them anymore.

*Name has been changed

By Ahmed Yussuf
Published in SBS News
10 June 2020