Real Life

The woman fighting for young homeless Aucklanders

Would you spend a winter’s night sleeping rough to help fellow Kiwis in need? Here's why Victoria Hearn wants you to consider it.

The Lifewise Big Sleepout is an annual event to raise awareness, and much needed funds, towards the fight against homelessness. This year’s Sleepout will be held in Auckland on July 6, and social worker Victoria Hearn will be among those joining the cause.

For many social workers, there is a personal reason, a light bulb moment, or a particular incident that makes them want to dedicate their career to helping others. For youth homelessness advocate Victoria Hearn, it was a decade of pulling pints in the hospitality industry.

“Running bars and pubs I saw a lot of the problems, like the drinking and the violence,” she says. “You would be going out into the carpark late at night and bringing in kids that were sitting in cars, waiting for their parents who were playing the pokies. It eventually got to the stage when I just thought, ‘I’m on the wrong side of this.’”

So the softly spoken 33-year-old hung up her apron, went back to uni to study social work, and is now becoming one of the country’s leading voices for troubled youth. She’s been awarded for her community work, co-authored an extensive research paper into the plight of Auckland’s rough sleepers, and recently collected a major Vodafone Foundation grant, which is allowing her to develop meaningful solutions for helping young people out of the homelessness trap.

Through her work at Lifewise, a not for profit organisation that helps vulnerable people into accommodation, she regularly meets with people in crisis, people who have lost all hope, and those who have hit rock bottom.

“You hear similar stories time and time again, and there’s some that will stick with you forever,” she says, her eyes filling with tears.

She won’t be drawn on the details, but abuse and neglect features heavily in the lives of many teens she works with.

“I don’t think you ever ‘switch off’ at the end of the day. If I get to a point where I can switch off completely when I go home then I’m probably in the wrong job.”

Aucklanders taking part in the 2016 Lifewise Big Sleepout. Image/Facebook.

While running Lifewise youth houses in West Auckland, Victoria was working with 16-17 year olds, doing everything from helping a teen get enrolled at a doctors surgery, to assisting with cv writing, flat-hunting, and teaching basic life skills.

“One of the most frustrating things I hear from people is that homelessness is a choice,” she says. “It’s not something that someone chooses. What gets to me is when people walk past in the street and make some sneering comment about ‘lazy bums’ or whatever, those comments really stick with those kids.”

These days, the funding she gained through the Vodafone Foundation World of Difference Award earlier this year has largely taken her away from the frontline and into the office.

With the goal of preventing young people from becoming entrenched in street life, Victoria’s working on expanding programmes to move teens into housing as swiftly as possible, developing strategies to get various government departments working together on the issue, and finding ways to build on-going support systems.

Aucklanders taking part in the 2016 Lifewise Big Sleepout. Image/Facebook.

“The issue in New Zealand is that we have no specific strategies around homelessness,” she explains. “We have no minister for homelessness, we have no national strategy – which I find amazing. As a country, I think our response to youth homelessness is weak. There’s no coordination, and it’s frustrating that it’s not recognised as a big issue. Until that happens, you’ve got a whole bunch of organisations just trying to do the best they can do, without the funding and resourcing to do so.”

It’s a complex, tangled web of problems that can feel near impossible to solve, but Victoria’s truly confident that change is on the horizon.

“Internationally, there’s a wealth of innovative and effective programmes that can be applied here in New Zealand. Other countries are addressing the issue, why can’t we? I do believe we can do it. And I believe we are moving forward, very slowly, but there’s something there.”

  • Nobody knows the exact number of homeless people in New Zealand, although it’s estimated to be around 41,000. Over half of the country’s homeless are under 25, and one quarter are thought to be children. This year’s Lifewise Big Sleepout will be held in Auckland on 6 July. Click here for more information

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