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"The streets can be a war zone"

Bob Cunningham has been a familiar face on the streets of Brisbane, where he's been working with young homeless people for more than 14 years. The Red Cross youth worker has been quietly building bridges between police and the "streeties" as they sometimes call themselves, earning the respect of people at all levels.

And he's seen a lot of changes in that time.

Bob supports young people at Red Cross' drop in centre in central Brisbane - the Night Café - where the young people get a free meal, shower, toiletries and information two nights a week.

Most of the young people he works with don't live with their families for reasons ranging from domestic and family violence, sexual abuse, parental drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness among family members, and the children being removed from their family at a young age.

Despite the despair and sadness he's witnessed, Bob says there's actually a lot to be positive about. He shares his insights into why he's feeling more optimistic about homelessness than he used to.

"When I first started volunteering in 2002, Brisbane did have some problems with the kids on the streets, culminating with the young people staging a riot in the middle of the CBD and the kids throwing bricks off a building. They were going berserk.

"The drugs were harder in those days. There was a lot more heroin and sexual exploitation for drugs. But those circles got broken.

"We also went through about five or six years of [kids] sniffing paint - chroming. We went through a whole phase of that. Thankfully the young people we meet now are not into hard stuff like that.

"Working with the police and with the young people, Red Cross is in that neutral zone. Sometimes people describe it like a war zone - kids versus cops - but here's Red Cross in the middle building bridges of trust with young people but also working collaboratively with the police.

"We have these really good relations both with young people and the police and we can actually see there is a slide down in the hard crimes and the violent crimes. The desperation on the streets has actually slid right down. There is still crime. There are still robberies but the young people have changed. They're different. They're more naive and innocent and easier to work with.

"It's an incredible journey that I've witnessed. We're having more meaningful conversations. There's generally less violence and more young people are taking responsibility for their own actions and their own anger and their own issues. It's been a pleasure for me to be part of that journey for the last 12 years or more.

"The whole atmosphere at the Night Café is not one of desperation. It's like a family reunion. All these young people seem to know each other. They have that sort of resource amongst each other. They become like family to each other and so the place is full of hugs and greetings. It's got a really good atmosphere also from the volunteers that bring that good will every night we are open."

"The young people get that and it changes their sense of self worth. From feeling like, 'Nobody cares about me; nobody listens,' to 'They do care at Red Cross' and it kicks in their self empowerment and motivation to change."

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