One of the least-addressed problems of a carceral justice system is the question of what to do with people when they leave it. Without post-release support, many leave prison with little prospect of employment and few life skills to deal with their situation. The result is they often re-offend, and end up back in jail.
This problem can be more difficult to overcome for young people, especially those who have spent large proportions of their lives in juvenile detention; an 18-year-old who has been in prison for four years has effectively spent nearly a quarter of their life behind bars. This fact is reflected in significantly higher rates of re-offending for juveniles in comparison to adults. As with adults, many juveniles who re-offend end up back in the justice system, creating a "revolving door" situation where they end up spending much of their adolescence in and out of detention.
It was this "revolving door" scenario that caught the attention of Mark Watt, a manager at Melbourne's Parkville detention centre, in the late 1990s. Watt resolved to try to do something to alleviate the problem. He got together with former AFL player Glenn Manton – a familiar face for Carlton fans, wearing #22 in the club's great teams of the mid to late 1990s, and a long-time advocate for disadvantage youth – to found Whitelion.
Today, Whitelion has expanded throughout Australia. Western Australian state manager Mike Dixon says the model remains just as relevant in 2019 Perth as it was in 1999 Melbourne.
"[Whitelion helps] at-risk youth find a positive purpose in life that breaks the patterns of neglect, disengagement and risk-taking that leads to offending,” he says. “The full picture of why a young person finds themselves in jail speaks of a far broader social problem. Thousands of young people live with trauma as a result of abuse, neglect, exposure to the challenges of out-of-home statutory care and economic disadvantage. These young people often become homeless, or turn to risk-taking behaviour simply to survive or escape."
He says it's important to extend support beyond the duration of a sentence. "Whitelion expanded its reach beyond the prison walls to make sure these young people weren’t forgotten,” he says. “[We developed] programs and support services that meet their varying needs."
In Western Australia these include the Mobile Youth Service (an outreach case-management service for at-risk teens in some of Perth’s poorest suburbs); a youth drop-in centre that provides “regular sporting activities, camps and life skill workshops”; and a service called “Deadly Diversions”, which “aims to address the underlying causes of high-volume offending and support young people to develop positive, sustainable life pathways.”
Whitelion relies on funding from StreetSmart and its CafeSmart initiative, which asks cafes across Australia to donate $1 for every coffee sold to a local grassroots organisation dealing with issues around homelessness. Coffee roasters also join in to donate some of the beans, and customers are encouraged to match the cafe’s $1-per-coffee contribution. This year the event returns on Friday August 9.
"[We've put] CafeSmart funds ... towards services that support young people experiencing homelessness,” says Watt. “The funding complements the case-management services we offer … through providing basic resources – food and material aid, emergency-relief support – and contributes to programs that equip people to develop independence and self-sustainability. StreetSmart has allowed Whitelion to develop programs using art, cooking and hairdressing to enable at-risk youth to increase resilience, engage positively with peers and develop career aspirations."
He says these programs allow for outreach to youth not in detention but at risk of behaviour that might put them back there. "The StreetSmart Whitelion programs offer a safe space and place of respite when required.”
This feeling of safety is important because “target-group youth are disengaged from the community and often feel alienated within society. StreetSmart offers community cohesion, and Whitelion young people have benefited through this additional assistance to cope with poverty and dignity issues related to homelessness and community disconnection.”
Ultimately, he says, it’s the simple things that help break the cycle of re-offending and re-incarceration. “[Our clients] benefit from the skills they learn,” he says. “From basic living, budgeting and cooking skills to parenting advice, and skill and attitude development. [All these things] can lead to employment."
Whitelion is just one of many organisations supported by CafeSmart, an initiative that unites the community over coffee to help fund local homelessness services. CafeSmart returns August 9. Find participating cafes here. Roasters can become partners here. Cafe owners can sign up to CafeSmart here.