Albion Park Rail's Ryan Carlson did not see the point of continuing school - he thought he was destined to live on the dole - until he joined the Koori Men's Support Group.
He said the group's Aboriginal elders taught him the value of working hard, getting an education and a job.
"Uncle George showed us a better way than going down the wrong road," he said.
Now, the 18-year-old has made his first move towards living independently through the Koori Youth Housing Project.
He and his cousin, Nathan Price, aged 18, have been provided with rent assistance for a two-bedroom unit in Albion Park Rail, as well as support to find a job.
Mr Carlson said he had come a long way since his tough childhood.
At age nine, he and his siblings were taken from their home due to neglect.
"I've seen some things children don't need to see," he said.
He lived with his grandparents and eight other relatives in a three-bedroom house until he moved out about a month ago.
Although he enjoyed his new-found independence, he said there were many responsibilities.
"Trying to rely on yourself is the hardest bit," he said.
"I realised I have to look after myself, you can't rely on everyone to give it to you on a gold platter.
"Nathan cooks and I'm the cleaner.
"I'm also looking for work in construction."
Mr Carlson said he planned to mentor other young Aboriginal men once he found his feet.
A housing program for young Aboriginal men in the Illawarra was launched on Thursday to help prevent homelessness and teach youth independent living skills.
The Koori Youth Housing Project was designed by the Koori Men’s Support Group and Southern Youth and Family Services (SYFS) to help give young Koori men financial support to rent a unit, find a job and study.
Overcrowding in family or other homes was a problem for many Aboriginal youth, according to SYFS.
But waiting times for public housing were up to 10 years, while median rental figures for a one-unit bedroom in Wollongong exceeded youth allowance payments, according to the service.
Two 18-year-olds, Ryan Carlson and Nathan Price, have become the first tenants to move into a private rental property provided by the program.
SYFS chief executive Narelle Clay said the service aimed to break the risk of poverty by intervening before youth became dependent on the system.
‘‘We will visit them and teach them tenant rights and responsibilities,’’ she said.
‘‘We pay the gap in rent and make sure they’re OK.’’
- GEMMA KHAICY