A roof over your head
Mikaela’s bubbly personality, that reaches epic heights when she talks about her favourite music genre, K-Pop, matches her vibrant hair. The twenty-four-year-old has just started working at Red Cross Night Café. She also now has a full-time day job that’s going well, a cat who keeps her company in her one-bedroom apartment and a younger brother and baby sister she adores.
“I do genuinely feel content most days. I feel like I have found my life’s meaning and why I want to be here and what I want to do.”
Mikaela didn’t always feel this way. A number of personal factors meant that her relationship with her family was strained. She also struggled with mental health issues.
“That made me quite difficult to live with at home. I didn’t have the motivation to find work. I was locking myself in my room, trying to find escapes through my laptop, and not talking to people. So we butted heads a fair bit. There was a really heated argument and I decided that I was going to leave.”
Feeling hurt and lonely, Mikaela left her parents, with no real plan.
Friends helped out with a couch to sleep on. But she wasn’t always comfortable or safe. Mikaela moved four times in four years, including two short periods in transitional housing, a frightening place for a teenage girl.
“A lot of the people who go there are from crisis shelters or they’re from places that are from the streets or they’re from prison.”
The years of instability, and living in places that were often dangerous, greatly impacted Mikaela’s already delicate mental health.
“I did attempt to overdose a number of times. It was really rough. It was scary. The place that I was living at had people that were on really heavy drugs. They’d come asking me if I wanted to give them a urine sample so they could pass their drug test. I was, like, no, I'm not going do that for you. I felt threatened and uncomfortable and I didn’t want to be there.”
With a ‘roof over her head’, Mikaela didn’t consider herself homeless at the time. But Isabel Stankiewicz, Red Cross Services Lead, says homelessness isn’t just people sleeping rough on the streets.
“Sleeping on someone’s couch puts you in a very vulnerable position. They may not identify as being homeless due to the stigma that’s associated with that, but they are without a home.”
Mikaela and Bob prepare for a busy night. Australian Red Cross/Amelia Wong
More than a meal
One night, a friend took Mikaela to the Red Cross Night Café in Brisbane’s CBD. She came for the good food and free wifi, but discovered something more.
Safety, comfort and friendship, and more like a home than some of the places she slept.
Other young people that were in similar situations to her and understood how she was feeling.
Staff and volunteers that listened and believed in her, and supported her goals.
“I started seeing how the volunteers help run the space and the youth workers. I'm, like, this might be something I want to do.”
Mikaela gained stable accommodation and things started to fall into place. She got a job, a cat, and a car. She continued to visit the Night Café, more for the friendships than the meals. Mikaela became a volunteer, and, soon after, a casual job as a Youth Development Officer.
Isabel says while Mikaela was accessing the Night Café, she was a great champion and voice for young people, and was always putting her hand up to be involved.
“When she volunteered, people talked about the richness that she brought to the team and her ability to connect with other young people. It was an ingredient that we wanted more and more of. A position became available, Mikaela applied and the insight she demonstrated, her intimate knowledge and experiences made her the perfect candidate.”
Colleague Matt says Mikaela’s lived experience means she truly understands what the guests are going through.
“That’s something that you can't really teach. It's something that’s innate and it's a level of perspective that people without it can't really understand and that’s a pretty amazing thing.”
Mikaela loves volunteering, giving back to the place that supported her.
Someone to listen
Every Tuesday and Thursday, the Night Café provides a hot meal and shower and a safe place to relax. There are board games and free clothing. Most importantly, there are people, like Mikaela, who will listen, to those who want to talk.
“Some of the young people who are going through a lot just need someone who will genuinely listen.”
The café is for young people between the ages of 12 and 25 who are experiencing homelessness. Isabel says sadly, children as young as nine visit.
“There’s real systemic gaps that create cracks that children fall into and it’s very difficult to navigate, helping people climb out of those cracks. The stigma around homelessness is very real and a lot of people who are homeless may not identify as being homeless due to feeling shame or embarrassment around the situation that they're in.
Some guests are one offs, many are regulars. Over time, staff and volunteers build trust to learn what’s going on in the young person’s life and why they’re coming to the café.
Homelessness, Matt says, is a spectrum. It ranges from people sleeping on the streets, to having problems with mum and dad and staying with friends.
“We engage with young people and try to reconnect them with family, with social connections, so they don't end up in worse situations.”
That means linking young people to services and support with housing, employment, education, transport, health and wellbeing, to help get them back on their feet.
Mikaela says sometimes you feel so overwhelmed that you won’t be able to get out of the hole. But you have to have self-belief and determination to make things happen and someone, like Red Cross, walking alongside.
Mikaela loves being part of the Night Café team.
Tomorrow’s a brand new day
Mikaela says she’s enjoying her new role and it has her thinking about studying criminology and social work, to learn more about the factors that may lead young people to crime and so how to prevent and support them.
Mikaela says it’s hard to believe how far she’s come and she wouldn’t recognise the person she was five years ago.
“It is tough. It isn’t going to be easy but it’s something that you will get through, that with the right help and a keenness to go forward if they really want it to happen, it will happen.”
“I'm not in a state of, like, a darkness that depression, and I'm in that space where I'm okay. If I do have a bad day it doesn't unravel all the work that I've done. I will say okay, I've had a bad day today but that’s okay; tomorrow’s a new day; tomorrow’s going be better and I'll be happy.”