Annabelle * was 14 when she first became homeless.

Through no fault of her own, Annabelle’s family broke down and she became caught in the middle of a three-year custody battle between her parents.  The situation deteriorated and Annabelle was forced to leave home in Year 8.

Annabelle had nowhere to turn. There were no youth homelessness services on the South Coast for young people under the age of 16, her relationship with her father was irreparable and living with her extended family wasn’t an option.

“I didn’t have any other family to support me. It was just me on my own at the age of 14. It was pretty scary,” said Annabelle.

Fortunately, a trusted teacher at Annabelle’s high school took her in and gave her a place to stay for a few months until her Mum was well enough for Annabelle to return home.

“But things went awry pretty quickly due to Mum’s drug and alcohol use and her mental health issues,” said Annabelle.

For the next year the teenager bounced around from house to house, couch surfing at friends’ places and living with her older sister and her partner before, at 15, being placed with a foster family. But none of these arrangements gave Annabelle what she craved – a room of her own.

By this stage Annabelle had hit rock bottom. She had no ongoing support network, there was a lack of homelessness services available to young people under the age of 16 and foster care placements are difficult to find and maintain for older teens. Annabelle’s mental health deteriorated and her only option was to return home. But once again things fell apart.

By the time she was 16 Annabelle was back living with her High School teacher’s family. They had three young boys and life was busy, but Annabelle found the stability, structure and routine that she craved. She was aware of the sacrifices the family made for her to stay with them and says she will be eternally grateful. It also meant she could finish school.

“Those boys are like my brothers,” she said. “And my teacher, and school in general, was a very big support for me. I never wanted to go in those early years but in Year 10, 11 and 12 it was my only support network. It stopped being a place for learning and became more of a haven, a safe space.”

Finishing school, despite the extraordinarily difficult circumstances Annabelle faced, proved to be a saving grace and gave Annabelle access to her dream job once she graduated.

“I moved to Sydney and did sound and lighting and roadwork with bands for quite a few months after school,” said Annabelle, her face lighting up as she recalled one of the happiest times in her life. “But then my accommodation fell through.”

Without any family to help out with Sydney’s exorbitant living costs, Annabelle once again found herself homeless and was forced to move back to the South Coast.

By now Annabelle was 18 and eligible to access CareSouth’s Shoalhaven Youth Support Service (SYSS), a program which she believes saved her life. Annabelle was referred to the program by staff at Ulladulla’s Youth Centre and in November last year spent several months living at SYSS before moving into CareSouth transitional housing.

She found work at Nowra Entertainment Centre doing some sound and lighting gigs (unfortunately that ended with COVID-19 restrictions). And most importantly, after five years of uncertainty and bouncing around more than 10 houses, Annabelle finally had a home of her own.

“I’m not sure where I would be if I hadn’t come here (to SYSS),” said Annabelle quietly, reflecting on a time in her life where she was lost, lonely and felt utter despair.

“Five years ago my mental health was at its worst and it was difficult to believe it would get any better. I couldn’t see a way out. I was 14 and all alone.

“Now things aren’t perfect, but they are much better than what they were because I reached out and asked for help. I struggled with that a lot, asking for help, but if I didn’t reach out who knows where I might be.

“With support from SYSS caseworkers I was able to get back on my feet. I grabbed any opportunity that came my way, even if I didn’t want to do it, I forced myself to. Once you take those first steps lots of opportunities come your way. One of the difficult things about mental health is you don’t want to do anything, or ask for any help but my advice would be just make yourself do it, say yes to everything.”

One of the initiatives Annabelle said yes to was the SYSS driver mentoring program. The program gives young people access to CareSouth’s pool cars, a free professional driving lesson, and ongoing lessons with a mentor from HMAS Albatross in Nowra to gain the required log-book hours needed for a provisional licence.

“Without family support young people have no opportunity to achieve the 120 hours driving experience needed for their licence,” said SYSS team leader Kim Newnham.

“To help young people at risk get their licence, CareSouth developed a partnership with HMAS Albatross, where defence staff become mentors for young people so they get the required driving experience and recorded log-book hours to gain their provisional licence.”

For Annabelle the Driver Mentoring program has put her on the road to independence.

“I didn’t have parents to drive me around,” said Annabelle. “And public transport on the South Coast is really bad. Getting my licence and a car means I can study and work, it will open up so many doors.”

Annabelle is well on her way to gaining her required hours to get her licence, thanks to the generosity of volunteer driving mentors. She has also taken part in a unique program developed by SYSS and funded by the Department of Communities and Justice called Adulting 101.

SYSS staff, in collaboration with Southern Cross Housing, Headspace, Legal Aid and Mission Australia Transition to Work, recently hosted a series of educational workshops for young people aged between 16 and 24 who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, to support them on their path to stable housing, education, skilled employment and financial independence.

Despite the restraints imposed by COVID-19, SYSS staff were able to hold workshops – focusing on mental health, access to housing, employment obligations and entitlements, financial literacy, and education and training opportunities – for up to 20 young people over several weeks.

Feedback from those who participated in the program was positive, with young people saying the knowledge they gained from the workshops has helped them on their path to independence.

“There was lot of information to help us plan for our future,” said Annabelle. “One of the things we learned was that getting access to housing is a really long process, one of the most difficult processes. But the workshops helped us understand what we need to do.

“By 2021 I’ll have my own house, I have enough saved up to buy my first car, I’ll have started studying again and I’ll 110 per cent have my licence. It will be a new kind of independence for me and I’m excited about the future.”

*names have been changed