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STEVE, Chantelle and Merryn stand around a kitchen bench and lean around each other to reach for the packet of pizza bases and to pick at the bowls of the salami, grated cheese, mushrooms and drained corn kernels.
Chantelle insists the canned corn kernels taste fabulous on pizza and by the end of the meal her companions agree they’re actually pretty good.
The teenagers sit around the dinner table, the girls rolling their eyes when Steve makes them listen to a song on his mobile.
They might be siblings or perhaps university house mates.
Instead the trio has been brought together by circumstance.
Steve and Chantelle, both 19, and Merryn, 18, were all homeless when they arrived at Albury’s Broughton House Youth Refuge.
Refuge team leader Tam Quinn said the public often believed young people who lived in shelters were “street kids” or had, for some reason, chosen to be homeless.
That’s a myth, she said.
Instead, Ms Quinn said 80 per cent of those who ended up rooming at the shelter started without a place to call home as a result of family or relationship breakdown.
“Choice happens in a context for many young people and so often the situation is out of their control, so really their choice is to choose to be safe or in some situations escape something worse,” she said.
“All of the young people at the shelter are looking to be engaged with something. They want a good life and they have the same strong ideas and values about what a good life is.”
Merryn Burdack, 18, has been at Broughton House since the start of this year after spending two weeks couch surfing with friends when she was forced out of the family home.
Even when she was couch surfing she kept turning up to her shift at the Lavington Safeway store and continued to attend her accounting course at TAFE.
Her employees and teachers were probably none the wiser.
Merryn’s now looking to move out with a friend and has aspirations to be an accountant and “become very rich” so she can support her family, particularly her mum.
“She was always there for me and she looked after me,” Merryn said.
During the past financial year the shelter, which is the only one of its kind in Albury, received about 200 requests for assistance.
But with just five beds, the refuge could only take in half this number.
The remaining 100 young people had the option of joining a waiting list and most would have remained homeless.
Ms Quinn said couch surfing had long been a temporary solution for the hundreds of homeless in the region.
In the past four or five months she had seen more people sleeping rough — in tents, in cars or in parks.
It’s the worst she’s seen during her five years in the job.
Steve Hawker and Chantelle Maas were living in a tent pitched at camping spots at Corowa, Rutherglen and Wodonga before they were encouraged to take a look at the youth refuge.
“It was always way too hot in the tent and we could never shower,” Chantelle said.
They arrived from Melbourne before Christmas when Steve was kicked out of home but things are starting to fall into place.
Chantelle has secured a job at Spotlight Albury while Steve has joined a hobby train group in Wodonga with plans to study accounting .
Tonight is their last night at the shelter and they’re having a “success cake” to celebrate.
They have moved all their things into their immaculate East Albury home.
Ms Quinn describes them as “house proud”.
For now their rent is subsidised by Homes Out West, as part of the Crisis Accommodation Program, but when they get on their feet they’ll be able to take over the rent in its entirety.
During their stay at Broughton House the young people completed their “Housing Ready” certificate by taking it in turns to cook meals and keep the refuge clean.
Chantelle admits before their stay at the shelter the pair weren’t ready to move out.
“We would live on frozen vegetables and packet pasta and takeaway,” she said.
Now her speciality is corn with pizza and home-made lasagne.
Broughton House is appealing for donations to help cater for increased demand and furnish new areas. YES Youth and Family Services chief executive Di Glover said office space would be transformed into a counselling area, study room and additional lounge. Contact Tam Quinn by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling (02) 6058 6266.