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'Family violence left me homeless at 15. Here's how I survived.'

This story deals with domestic and sexual abuse and suicide and could be triggering for some readers.

At 15 years old, Kristen walked out of the tiny commission flat that she shared with her mother – for the last time.

With only the school uniform she was wearing, school bag, and $10 in her pocket, she walked to a friend’s place and pleaded to stay the night. But she was turned away. 

Watch: Women and Violence: The Hidden Numbers. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia

The last six years had been especially tough on Kristen. Not long after arriving in Melbourne from the Phillipines at nine-years-old, she and her mother fled their family home. 

“My father did something no man should do to his daughter,” Kristen tells Mamamia, her voice trailing off. 

And there were the many instances of domestic violence between her parents to which she bore witness too. 

But while the flat Kristen shared with her mother was a refuge from the fraught family life they escaped, it was still far from the normalcy she craved. 

A stained, donated futon and an esky, stood in place of warm beds and a fridge. Mother and daughter slept on the floor with a mattress protector used as a blanket. 

“My mum also had her own battles. We had both been diagnosed with PTSD.”

“There were times where my mum and I would be in a shop, and the phone would ring and my mum would say, “That’s your dad and the government trying to find out what we're buying.”. She was really scared of my dad finding out where we lived.”

Driven by this deep fear, Kristen’s mother behaved erratically. And for random periods of time, Kristen's older brother came to live with them, bringing his troubles into their home too.

“I knew that living there was not what I wanted. In my mind, it wasn’t who I am,” she reflects.

“I used to look out the windows from the high-rise commission housing, and think, what else is out there? I wonder what my life will look like? What do I want my life to look like?”

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Image: Getty. 

Kristen’s tears fall freely as she relives the moment she stood alone on her friend’s doorstep, with nowhere to go as the afternoon light began to fade.

And on that evening, Kristen became one of the 27,680 young Australians (aged between 12-24) that are homeless – one quarter of the nation's entire homeless population. 

This is the number according to the 2016 census; but the actual number is thought to be much greater given the lack of access to census surveys by those that are experiencing homelessness. 

‘Family violence doesn’t just attack a woman as a person.’

There is an inextricable link and increasing vulnerability between those who have experienced domestic and mental health, according to a research paper released by the Centre for Social Impact (CSI) late last year. Further, a 2016 report, the Salvation Army found that 56 per cent of the homeless youth surveyed had to left home because of violence between parents on at least one occasion. 

“Family violence doesn’t just attack a woman as a person,” Lighthouse Foundation CEO and forensic psychologist Eamonn McCarthy tells Mamamia.

“Family violence attacks a woman’s capacity to provide care. It ultimately results in situations where the most brilliant of women who would otherwise be the most attuned of mothers, are placed in circumstances where they may not be able to provide the level of care and comfort that their child may require.”

“Equally, family violence is perpetrated in such a way that can often isolate children from their mothers and all of this contributes to scenarios whereby young people might not have a safe family home to reside in.”

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Sexual, physical or emotional abuse in the home, lack of access to employment opportunities or insufficient income to pay rent and living costs, rising housing costs and the unaffordability of the rental market, difficulties in accessing Youth Allowance and other support payments, drug and alcohol issues, overcrowded living conditions and the death of a parent are just some of the other major factors that contribute to youth homelessness.

Image: Getty. 

And if you are BIPOC or a person of diverse background or experience, the challenge of accessing support is only further exacerbated: 26 per cent of those surveyed in the CSI study, reported they had been discriminated against by homelessness services or housing because of their age, race, appearance, disabilities, gender identity or sexual orientation.

From dark to light

Kristen took herself to her local police station that night where an officer organised some temporary accommodation at a refuge for homeless youth. She stayed there for six weeks, during which time she learned about the Lighthouse Foundation from one of the carers. 

“And I became very adamant – that’s where I wanted to go.”

Over the past 30 years, the Lighthouse Foundation has changed the lives of over 1,000 children and youth affected by long-term neglect, abuse and homelessness, with their homes and therapeutic care programs. At each Lighthouse home, small groups of youth live alongside their carers as family units, with each child chipping in with chores and responsibilities, while also being supported to heal from their traumatic experiences. 

Before Kristen knew it, she had moved in to the 13-bedroom home in Melbourne’s south-east alongside six other teens.

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“It was a shock to the system. All of a sudden, I was in this weird home environment. They were strangers to me. But the carers were amazing, although in the beginning, I actually slept on a couch for about a month because I didn't feel comfortable sleeping in my single bed in a shared room,” she shares.

Eventually Kristen adapted, and began to thrive on the stability and care. She applied herself to study and work and took up every opportunity for professional development that came her way. 

“And I thought to myself, if I can continue to do this – study and work – I can create the other life that I wanted.”

But it still was not without its low points – tragically, Kristen’s room mate took their own life. 

“That was extremely traumatising.”

But Kristen forged her way forward, finished her schooling, and remaining at Lighthouse until she was 19. Working three jobs at once, she was determined to make the life she once dreamed of from the heights of her commission flat.

‘S**t happens’

Today, Kristen is a 37-year-old mum of two, and holds a management role in a global healthcare company. 

“When I was at 15, I felt alone. I didn't think people cared. And then I found Lighthouse, and they cared. A whole lot. So much so, that all these people around me – the carers, the volunteers, the psychologists – they helped me get to where I am now. Obviously, I had to do the work. But they give you that platform to be able to do it."

And now, she hopes her story will bring hope to others doing it tough.

“I just want people to know that, you know, there’s always worse things out there in life. S**t happens and it's okay."

"Things will always get better.”

Keen to read more from Rebecca Davis? You can find her articles here, or follow her on Instagram, @rebeccadavis___

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Feature Image: Getty