Bondi Local Profile: Laurie Matthews

Melanie Giuffré | Bondi Fresh Daily | December 18, 2015

Laurie Matthews founded the Caretakers Cottage in 1972 with a grant of just $40. Since those humble beginnings in Paddington, the organisation (which moved to Bondi 20 years ago) has provided accommodation and out of care support to well over 40,000 children, teenagers and young adults. Melanie spoke to Laurie at Caretakers Cottage on Bondi Road.

Melanie Giuffré: Can we start by getting a little bit of your background...

Laurie Matthews: I didn’t start out in the Eastern Suburbs. I was born in Camperdown. My father was a minister in the Uniting Church and eventually he settled into a parish in Paddington and Woollahra and that’s how I came to the Eastern Suburbs, and that was in about 1970. I went to school at Newington and began working after school around the local neighbourhood in the Holdsworth Street playground and from there I eventually grew into the social welfare area presumably through my father’s influence.

So, why a refuge? We had a teenage drop-in-centre in Woollahra that had sort of come to the end of its time. We’d had young kids who had come in as teenagers had started to grow older and were moving on. We found that we were accommodating some kids at that stage in our large extended family home, especially on the weekends when parents weren’t around and had abandoned their kids for the weekend.

Melanie Giuffré: When you say “we” you mean your family?

Laurie Matthews: Yep, my family. We’re talking the early 70s and we’re talking what was ostensibly a big hippie house in Paddington and so it was quite an alternative environment and we had a spare room in the house so when someone needed a bed they got a bed. It was often young people but we had no particular age that we were working with. We didn’t see ourselves as running a youth refuge as such we were just providing accommodation to people who needed it.

However, we had an interesting community, particularly in the Paddington area at that time because Paddington was being gentrified quite quickly however there were still large remnants of old timers in the area; council workers, a particularly fascinating group of old boxers and their partners from the Sydney Stadium and they continued to be in the area until way into the 80s. However we ended up we ended up accommodating young people in our extended family home and saw that there was a bit of a common theme coming along. It was a time when large institutional care was being closed down everywhere and there  were the remnants of traditional old orphanages and there was nothing coming along to replace them. It was clear that that sort of accommodation was inappropriate and needed to be replaced so we formalised our approach. We approached the minister (of Youth and Community Services) of the day, Rex Jackson, and he threw us a few thousand dollars and we thought that was “fantastic, what recognition!” But it was quite astute on his part as it tied us into providing a service, which we did, quite happily.

Melanie Giuffré: You started your life’s work…

Laurie Matthews: Yes, absolutely. My wife and I were on the dole to cover our costs and so forth and we formally set up the refuge. And it was in a building that was the caretaker’s cottage up at the Uniting Church in Paddington. As time has gone by we have grown. It was a tiny little house that we were in. We’ve got formalised funding now, from the State Government and a little bit from the Canberra. We work very, very hard and the first lot of funding came along in 1981 so we survived for about 4 years without any formal funding, the church had given us real estate and we were able to get some largesse from various places around.

Melanie Giuffré: What about the house we are in now?

Laurie Matthews: That comes a little later. We’ve been here on Bondi Road for about 20 years. And there’s a story to that as well. As a young guy growing up in Paddington I’d catch the bus top Bondi Beach and I remember seeing the house we’re currently in and thinking, wow, that’s the best looking terrace on Bondi Road! I don’t know why I was looking at real estate back then! And here we are!

We grew quite rapidly and became a fairly significant accommodation service in the Eastern Suburbs. There weren’t many others. There was a long-­term refuge in Randwick but that’s about it. We saw ourselves as a crisis refuge. We were picking up people who were instantly in need. We were having people referred to us from police, schools and the Department of Community Services, or whatever it was called at that time. So we became a formalised part of the homelessness service system as funded by government.

Once we became part of the system our name was out there on directories and we started to develop a bit of a following through word of mouth, Young homeless people would know other young homeless people and their friends would refer themselves. It happens organically after a while.

I often get asked why a refuge in Bondi. We are accommodating homeless 12 to 18 year olds here in this particular service. And I would say, in fact it’s not about poverty, it’s not about people down on their luck, it’s about relationships. We have young people here who do come from impoverished kinds of backgrounds. We also have many young people who are currently at the best private schools in town, who live in the most expensive harbourside suburbs, and they’re here because the relationships within their families are not working well. A classic example kind of scenario for us is to be working with a young person whose parents have split, they’ve formed new relationships and they might have new kids in those relationships and the kid from the original relationship finds himself lost between two separated partners. That’s a really common scenario. The original partners will often try to leave their past behind, including their kids, unbelievably.

Melanie Giuffré: How would those kids find you?

Laurie Matthews: They will come to know us one way or another. If you are a young child in that instance, you will be hurt and they will show their hurt in different ways. Some will get involved in drugs and crime. Others will come to be noticed at school for being disruptive, etc. One way or another they will come to be noticed. Some young people will take the initiative themselves and run away from home. And so they come to us through schools, through the police, through a whole range of ways.

These days, every kid at high school will know some kid who has ended up in a refuge of some sort.

Our role though is to try to resolve the issues that have led to homelessness. We don’t want young people to end up in a refuge in the first place. It’s not a particularly comfortable situation, and I see young people arrive at our place and they walk in the front door they’re wondering where on earth are they, what is going to happen? Is this a nice place? It’s scary. Some take it in their stride, but that’s not the majority. So our role is to try to walk to try resolve the issues and we have endless phone conversations with parents and young people working to try get resolutions. And we do. We might find that there are mental health issues that need to be attended to and so as we have a bit of experience in the field we know how to link people up with the right kind of support services.

Part of our funding enables us to pass some of our funding on to the Ted Noffs Foundation which does early intervention work in schools on drug and alcohol, however they have now expanded that to include isolating young people who are at risk of homelessness and engaging with them and their families.

So we work to try and prevent kids from coming here in the first place. When kids end up in a youth refuge it really does represent a bit of a disaster for everybody concerned. In our society any fool is meant to able to be a parent. If you’re seen to be struggling at that and your child is seen to be not in your care, what does that say about you? So for a parent it’s really tough time to have to face.

Melanie Giuffré: Do you often see the resolution between the kids and the parents?

Laurie Matthews: For sure! I think a crisis is not always a bad thing. A crisis can be an opportunity for everyone to step back and reassess – “Is this really where I want to go?” We have young people residing in the house at the moment who have definitely had some tough times in their families and they want to get back home. It’s familiar and for all the difficulties it might be safer in their own mind. Because they don’t know where they’re heading.

Everybody wants to be loved and cared for, although some who are very hurt or broken don’t want the world to come too close, but behind that it’s a human thing. It’s really common for a young person to form a close bond with a youth worker here because they are someone who has taken a positive interest in that person. They become the most significant person in that young person’s life. We don’t want that to be the case so we have to work very hard to get the relationship working in the kids’ families but it doesn’t always happen though.

There are situations that are unsafe and unhealthy for that kid to return to. It’s not going to be happy families for everybody. In some situations we are helping young people to find alternative paths and to be able to be strong and to stand on their own two feet. Personally I find it a tough thing to be asking a young person to suddenly be an adult because it deprives them of their youth.

Another part of our programme is our transitional housing programme. We’ve got 62 placements in about 30 houses around the Eastern Suburbs, through NSW Housing – now Bridge Housing. So we are able to be able to set up housing and support for some young people in those houses to be paying rent and learning the skills of living independently. That has its moments but many young people they have to learn and to take responsibility for themselves. Our role is transitioning them from being fully supported in a crisis refuge to having a go at that independence and to then hopefully move out into the general market.

Melanie Giuffré: Do you stay in contact with the young people coming though?

Laurie Matthews: We don’t hear from the majority of young people and that’s probably a good thing. They want to put it all behind them and they’ve moved on, some successfully, some not. This morning I had a phone call form a guy in Perth who had made contact with us in 1987 when he was a 13 year old.  He’s fairly unwell and has been living in the bush in Frenchs Forest. He has now moved out of there and managed to put some money together and is in Perth for some reason. But he continues to ring me. We have a Facebook page and I have quite a bit of contact with people who are in their 40s. And they maintain contact with us because we have been significant player in their lives. One of the gratifying things is that we often have kids ringing up asking for help but that’s the same as any person who rings back to mum and dad and we are more than happy to help those young people through those scrapes. And then there’s all the others who come along to show their babies off.

Melanie Giuffré: That must be incredibly satisfying…

Laurie Matthews: Absolutely. We have a hallway full of photos and there are young mums with their babies and there are kids who were residents and it gives a real sense of belonging when they see their photos on the wall.

Melanie Giuffré: We’ve come to the end but one last question, do you have a motto for life?

Laurie Matthews: I reckon that: Life is good!

Melanie Giuffré: It’s great that you can see the things you see and still think that life is good!

Laurie Matthews: I’m amazed. We keep on hearing that we need to keep our options open and change career paths – that the old notion of a job for life is supposedly gone, but I’m afraid its not! I get up every morning happy to come to work. I live a long way away and I drive to work, listen to the radio, I enjoy what I do. I know the results and the outcome that come of it so it’s rewarding to me and I think it’s rewarding for the participants in our programmes too.

Melanie Giuffré: Thank you very much.

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