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Byron Shire
November 29, 2023

Youth service resorts to crowd funding as govts reduce services

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 Watch Cloudcatcher Media’s video about the plight of the Cottage.

Hans Lovejoy

The alarming trend throughout wealthy western countries to axe essential services that assist the most vulnerable is now hitting Byron Shire.

For 26 years, Byron Youth Service (BYS) has run programs, courses, events and activities which have nurtured talent and provided life skills for young people.

With a meagre budget and dedicated staff, they have supported the area’s young adults by offering alternatives to binge drinking and drugs.

They have provided mentorship and guidance.

But funding cuts by both state and federal governments now threaten their ability to provide these services.

‘We are now in crisis time’, says youth worker Deb Pearse, ‘and it’s down to the wire.’

One of Deb’s many jobs is running five groups a week, both for boys and girls, out of The Cottage in Mullumbimby. She says because of government funding cuts, she is the sole worker at The Cottage, where she provides individual support and case management, runs programs and activities and liaises with the school, families and the community.

‘At The Cottage I try to work with other agencies as much as possible, but it’s hard. There are lots of changes and restrictions happening, so we all have to work our way around them to actually do what we do.

‘I take drug and alcohol sessions with all my groups, with an Intra worker from the Buttery outreach service, and Tweed Sexual Health Service for sessions on sexual health.

‘Ideally we would love to have the funding for co-facilitators; it has been the most productive model until this year. All groups also have a meal together at The Cottage; this adds to costs but is essential for participants who, more often that not, haven’t had breakfast.’

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Outreach program Street Cruise provides early prevention and assistance for young people on Byron’s streets where binge drinking, vandalism and violence may occur.

And while young people, police, businesses and the community generally speak highly of the service, it has been reduced to just a Friday night service. Deb says, ‘Our best model for this program is a Friday and Saturday night service, as well as during festivals, holiday periods and special events.’

So what else has been lost?

According to Stephanie Sims from BYS, Links to Learning is gone, which included hospitality, events management and fashion courses.

They were funded by the state government. Stephanie says, ‘They were aimed at kids who were not working or at school.

‘They were accredited and they were free.’ Another vital service which is about to end is the federally funded Youth Connections. Deb says, ‘Youth Connections worked with young people at risk of ­disengaging or who have disengaged from school. It helped through the provision of activities, girls’ and boys’ groups, case management, referral, liaison, school and family support, individual support or any matters pertaining to enhancing their quality of life.

Additionally a similar federally funded program called Youth Enterprise will finish after its funding runs out at the end of June. ‘Youth Enterprise provided programs for young people struggling to remain engaged at school or out of school and interested in learning new skills through Trail Blazers, creative catering, creative girls’ group, Rock the YAC, SNAP photography competition, and assisted them with work placements.’

See Sharon Shostak’s video about the plight of the BYS

Buildings at stake

Deb says, ‘The buildings are under threat in the sense that if BYS closes its doors and can no longer operate, I can’t imagine anyone is going to let either of those building sit empty for long.

‘Council own The Cottage, so it would go back to them, and the state government owns Byron’s Youth Activities Centre (YAC).

‘A few years ago, they tried to zone The Cottage as residential and we had a bit of hooha to keep it. Currently I have a lease there until 2017, but we have to have the funds to keep running programs.’

Learn, earn or go hungry

Deb explains that similar services help young adults at risk, many of which have been slashed or merged. ‘Under the “learn or earn” policy, young people receive nothing if they’re not at school, alternative education or working. Byron Emergency Accommodation Project (BEAP) has merged with the Tweed Family Centre and now operates differently.

‘But it only takes those who are over 18 years old.

‘The Youth House has also been “absorbed” into the Tweed Family Centre, and now only has two beds they can use. It used to be five.

‘And it’s a very slow turnover and is in Ballina. There are no rentals there at the moment.

‘As for support, there are BYS workers, school counsellors, Reconnect (which also covers Ballina these days, I believe) and then there are professional counsellors, psychologists and psychiatrists, which most people can’t afford.’

Options if leaving home

‘If kids leave home really there’s nothing, especially in the north. They mainly couch surf. Links to Learning is finished, Youth Connections is finished and Youth Enterprise will finish its funding at the end of June. They were all great programs.

‘All in all it’s a sad and sorry picture; even young people who are at risk and unsupported financially at home find it very hard to get benefits. Usually I have to advocate strongly for them just to keep them safe.

‘All the workers that are left in any of the services are working so hard for the same or less money. BYS are down to three core workers. That’s bad… we have to work our arses off let me tell you. Luckily I love the kids, I love my job and I really don’t want to lose it.’

And luckily, a crowdfunding effort is underway to raise funding for The Cottage and Street Cruise.

Major sponsors such as successful local businesses or philanthropists are urgently needed to step up to provide the cash to ensure essential programs can continue, and that young kids at risk have a safe place to go.

To help our local kids, please donate at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/at-the-cottage.

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