Safe spaces: Caring for at-risk young people

August 10, 2018


The evidence from experts concerning more youth being at risk is rapidly mounting. Vulnerable youth need more safe spaces but it seems all that is being built are prisons. 

The streets of St Kilda in Melbourne’s south have long been home to homelessness and drug use, but this year there has been a visible rise of at-risk young people in the wintry city.

“It was once rare to see young people aged 16 to 22 sleeping rough, but more and more young people are having an experience of sleeping in town or in train stations,” says Rob Ellis, manager of The Salvation Army’s Upton Road Centre in St Kilda, the largest youth refuge in Victoria. He added that, “Two hundred and seventy young people lived here last year; most of them identified family breakdown as the cause of homelessness.”

The Upton Road Accommodation and Learning Centre cares for 450 clients each year, offering case management and pathways to work and study for young people with no place to go. The centre’s approach is appropriate given the theme for 2018’s International Youth Day is ‘Safe Spaces for Young People’.

Spaces like the Upton Road Centre have become increasingly important as the family unit is no longer the primary support network for adolescents. The Mission Australia Youth Survey Report in 2017 found that young people seek help from peers and the internet before their parents. 

The 2017 report from the Victorian Ombudsman on school expulsions established a connection between young people leaving school and entering into crime. The data shows that home and school aren’t always safe spaces and there aren’t many other places to go.

Safe spaces were historically found in social institutions. Traditionally these places were church halls, community centres or sporting clubs, but young people have decreasing connection to organisations like these. As a result, those who are at risk can often act out in public and be seen as criminals. The risk is further criminalisation.

“Young people are so influenced by peers that once they get involved in the wrong crowd and the justice system, it can create an ongoing effect,” explains Kate Mecham, the Salvos’ social programme and policy officer in Victoria. “The more young people are exposed to the justice system the more likely they are to have ongoing contact. Politicians and the media portray young people as criminals and there aren’t a lot of safe spaces for them.”


The portrayal of young people by politicians and the media as criminals is not only inaccurate but can actually increase the risk of youth crime. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology (Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 409), youth crime is less likely to be violent and is often attention-seeking behaviour. Also labelling a young person as a criminal creates an identity they feel inclined to adopt. Rates of youth crime decrease when young people are kept away from the justice system.


This is a self-contained, healing space where young people’s needs are met.

“We’ve kept young people from adult prisons here and it’s been considered best practice,” Kate says. “That system is under attack from both sides of politics, promoting a tough-on-crime approach. The media portrays young people as criminals. Disadvantage and the justice system sets kids up to fail.”

The young people who do come into contact with the youth justice system often reflect significant disadvantage. A report of the Youth Parole Board in 2016 in Victoria found that 63% of young people in detention were victims of abuse, trauma or neglect.

“Young offenders are coming from areas with the highest levels of disadvantage,” Kate explains. “Those kids are less likely to have a sympathetic response from the justice system and there are compounding factors, like if you’re from an ethnic minority or if you’re Indigenous.”

Race continues to be part of the issue, with Federal Government ministers expressing concerns about young gangs in Victoria, particularly focusing on members of the Sudanese community.

“The fear of young gangs is overstated,” Rob explains. “I think people just get scared of young people congregating in groups. My own 19-year-old hangs out in groups. Many of the kids we work with here get up to mischief that private school kids are involved in as well.”

However, the narrative of youth crime    is a popular one politically. The Victorian Government plans to build a new 224-bed youth justice facility, the highest-level security facility in the state, at a cost of $288 million. While there has been a problem with riots in the current youth justice facilities, these events only serve to highlight the failure of a punitive approach.

“At Upton Road we create a caring space for young people,” Rob explains. 

The centre resembles a landscaped apartment complex in the midst of the St Kilda streets, with activities that support and engage young people. 

“This is a self-contained, healing space where young people’s needs are met. We don’t see a lot of criminal behaviour here. No violence for the last six years. It decreases here. We provide a physical environment that has a nurturing approach.”

This International Youth Day, the Upton Road Centre will continue to serve as an illustration that at-risk young people require care, not punishment, and—an important reminder—if authorities want to decrease youth crime, they must build safe spaces, not prisons. 


Salvo Youth services
For any who may be in need of youth services offered by the Salvos, information can be found online at

Salvo resources
For The Salvation Army’s resources on how to involve young people in safe communities, download:
The youth department’s 2018 research report at

2018 ESIS report at


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