You both work with kids, focusing on homelessness. Can you tell us about your work?
Debi: We run workshops for school groups. I tell the kids stories about my own experiences with homelessness, and we play games. Working with a facilitator, we explore ideas like marginalisation and discrimination, privilege, authority, compassion… There’s lots of interaction. I try to make it fun!
Catherine: My academic work looks at the experiences and needs of highly vulnerable young people. A lot of my research and advocacy focuses on unaccompanied child homelessness – kids under 18 who experience homelessness without a parent or guardian. I’ve also worked in the community sector. That seared the struggles of marginalised children and young people into my mind.
Debi, the workshops tackle a serious topic in a creative way. How do the games work?
Debi: With the younger kids, we use coloured blocks. We ask, “What do we need to live a happy, healthy life?” The kids yell out answers – food, water, happiness, friendship… They build a tower with the blocks that represent a human being’s life.
Then problems come up: “What if the person gets sick or loses their job?” For each problem, a block gets taken away. The tower eventually falls. One student volunteers to fix it – but there’s a catch! It’s too hard. We ask, “What would make this easier?” The answer is: get help. Do it together. With support, people can rebuild their lives.
Catherine, as a researcher, what have children experiencing homelessness told you?
Catherine: Recently, I talked with children and young people about experiencing unaccompanied homelessness and mental ill-health. They told me, “I needed information, phone numbers, practical help.” Some had significant trauma or mental illness – they’d been exposed to violence, been raped, were suicidal – but schools and services had very [limited] responses. The school counsellor had them doing mindfulness. There’s a lack of funding, expertise, and services to support these kids with complex needs. It’s a massive problem.
What about kids who are safely housed – how can we talk to them about homelessness?
Catherine: It’s important to emphasise that anyone can experience homelessness – children, young people, adults, families – and that being homeless is not about those people’s skills or efficacy. Fundamentally, it’s because there’s not enough affordable housing, or people are not safe at home. So it’s about destigmatising and demystifying homelessness.
Also, trying to instil a sense of curiosity around homelessness. During book week, we talked about Nobody Owns the Moon with my youngest child’s class: what does home mean? Imagine: what might it be like to have no home? With older kids, they might be worried about a friend. Who could you talk to? What’s the phone number for housing support or child safety? Giving them some agency in that situation.
Debi: Children are naturally compassionate, and adults should reinforce this: “Yes, it’s sad that this person is [homeless]. They’ve had some troubles, and there are not enough houses for everyone.” Encourage gratitude: “We’re lucky to have warm beds in our house.” Start small and simple. And make sure the topic is open for future discussion.
What’s the value of discussing homelessness with kids?
Debi: Kids will grow up to run the world. Hopefully, they’ll think more compassionately and create a better world. Things are starting to improve, but society is changing much too slowly. Stigma is the worst. That’s very hard to change.
It needs parental encouragement, too. Kids pick up comments from parents: “Oh, he wants to live on the streets.” We’ll ask, “When you see someone sleeping rough, do they look happy?” The kids always say no. So who would choose that?
Catherine: Homelessness has changed, but our community's understanding of it hasn’t caught up. As housing becomes less and less affordable, different parts of the community are becoming homeless.
It’s also about instilling a sense of personal responsibility in an age-appropriate way. Without personal responsibility, we’ll never shoulder shared responsibility for structural change. And people – including kids on their own – will become homeless as a result.
What’s the best thing about your job? What keeps you going?
Debi: Interacting with the kids. Sharing knowledge, encouraging them to have compassion, and standing up for their rights for the truth. It’s a job with meaning. It [satisfies] my passion for social justice – working towards a better society. And I like talking to kids about my own experiences. If it helps make a difference, why not use it?
Catherine: These kids, I can’t believe they’re still alive. They’re incredible. You’re 14 or 15, you’ve experienced horrific abuse and somehow survived it on your own? Imagine what you could do with some help! There’s also an amazing, dedicated community workforce around these children. To amplify the kids’ and workers’ voices, help them get the resources to do their jobs, or to stay safe, to flourish – it’s the least I can do.
What’s something you wish more people understood?
Catherine: Unaccompanied children experiencing homelessness are a large, standalone group – nearly 13,000 kids nationally. But, the focus on “youth homelessness” has made these vulnerable children invisible. They need a specific policy and service response, but our systems are completely out of step with their needs and experiences.
Debi: People don’t become homeless by choice. Homelessness stems from a culmination of problems that are out of the person’s control. And it can happen to anyone.
Interviews and write-up by Meg Mundell