Five high school students decided to tackle the issue of youth homelessness in the Illawarra for a school project and to bring it to the national stage.
The Illawarra Grammar School (TIGS) Year 9 students realise "obviously we can't solve homelessness as a whole" but they do have a plan to make a difference locally.
As part of the annual Future Problem Solving Program students across Australia are encouraged to take a real-life problem within their community, identify a solution and enact an action plan.
TIGS students will compete at the national finals at Brisbane Grammar School on October 13.
Year 9 student Robbie Lavalle said the first step of their 'Helping Hands' project was to "educate ourselves" and to ask community groups how they can help.
"We've never been there ourselves. We're very privileged. We wanted to raise awareness and yeah tend to the needs of the homeless," he said.
They independently researched the issue before contacting experts. They then connected with the Wollongong Homeless Hub, Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul.
Census data released in early 2023 found the rate of people experiencing homelessness in the Illawarra is double that of the nation at large.
Illawarra's homelessness rate is 99.8 people per 10,000 - more than twice that of the national rate of 48 people for every 10,000.
Read more: Young and regional: find me a home
Year 9 student Yasmin Matar said she learned that homelessness does not equal "rooflessness" or rough sleeping.
"It's not just living on the street it can also be like living in your car, couch surfing and living in improvised homes like living with multiple people in boarding houses," she said.
The group organised to speak at school assemblies and to run some interactive activities with the younger year 5 students.
"We did like 'Sit down if you have more than two TVs in your home' ... things that we go home and take for granted," Robbie said.
TIGS coordinator for the Community Problem Solving Competition Jean Burton said the students were constantly surprised by the misconceptions surrounding youth homelessness.
The group chose to address homelessness after spotting multiple social media videos of people being rude to those experiencing homelessness.
"We wanted to prove that homelessness isn't a choice," Robbie said.
Mrs Burton said the main message students will bring to the national finals is about respect.
"Through speaking with experts they learned that one of the most important aspects of helping wasn't in making donations, valuable as they are, but in spreading awareness that homeless people frequently receive judgemental reactions and just seek to be treated with respect and dignity the same as any other human," she said.
Students supported people experiencing homelessness in the Illawarra by collecting donations of food as well as creating toiletry hampers.
The group want TIGS to continue the project beyond the competition and even their time at the school.
"[We've spoken to the staff] about how we can keep it in the school for more generations, as it is always going to be a relevant issue, especially with rising inflation," Robbie said.
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