A girl with long hair sits on a couch in a living room

Tucked away in an ordinary-looking house in suburban Cairns, there is an extraordinary household.

The home is shared by six flatmates who are staying in the only shelter for homeless girls and young women in far north Queensland.

It serves a region from Cairns to Cape York Peninsula, an area larger than Victoria.

Lily (not her real name) fled an abusive home and moved to Cairns where the 16-year-old couch-surfed for a year and ended up sleeping in a park before moving into the shelter.

“It’s really depressing … you feel like you can’t keep going.

“You don’t know what you’re doing with life anymore.”

But Lily considers herself one of the lucky ones.

She secured a bed at St Margaret’s Young Women’s Shelter, run by Anglicare, alongside a similar shelter for young men run by St John’s.

They are the only two facilities offering youth-only crisis accommodation between Cairns and Torres Strait and, with their capacity for six girls and six boys remaining unchanged since 1986, both are under immense pressure

The shelters are staffed 24 hours a day.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

Anglicare North Queensland interim chief executive Conny Lenneberg said young people were being turned away daily.

“Last month, 43 young women were turned away,” she said.

“Last year, between the two services, 223 were turned away.”

No change for 35 years

St Margaret’s and St John’s were founded in Cairns in the mid-1980s, providing beds for girls and boys aged 16 to 25 in separate homes, staffed by support workers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In 35 years, the region’s population has grown by more than two and a half times to above 165,000, but the number of funded beds has stayed the same.

State Member for Cairns Michael Healy acknowledged that it was not good enough.

“Fundamentally, we’re talking about accommodation here,” he said.

“We need additional crisis accommodation.”

St Margaret’s House program manager Dearne Lang said those who secured a bed could stay from a few nights to six months and beyond, depending on their needs, and be connected with support services.

“Needs are really varied, so you’d be looking at alcohol and other drugs support, medical support, education support, job service providers, training, trying to reconnect back to family and community wherever possible,” she said.

A sense of ‘safety’

Ms Lang said the stories behind the faces were all different, from domestic violence to intergenerational homelessness, to leaving the child safety system because they were too old.

“Probably around 36 per cent [of shelter residents] have formerly been in child safety care,” she said.

“It gives them a sense of safety and that people do care.”

three women stand on a verandah
St Margaret’s staff assist residents to connect with services like mental health and substance support.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

The shelter operates on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Sometimes they don’t even have their ID or really basic needs like a Medicare card,” Ms Lang said.

“[That’s] if we have a bed — the first person who calls gets the bed.”

She said transitional housing numbers had not increased in the past three decades either, and the service was facing a backlog of its own.

Funding and promises

The LNP’s incumbent in the federal seat of Leichhardt, Warren Entsch, said he had not heard from Anglicare about the need for additional support, but he agreed housing and homeless support services were insufficient.

“I’m a very strong advocate for getting more accommodation,” Mr Entsch said.

“I would have thought if they had a real need, they would have knocked on my door and said, ‘We need some help’.”

This is despite Anglicare North Queensland telling the ABC they had tried to make contact with Mr Entsch’s office numerous times.

Mr Entsch said the service was playing politics, which he found “profoundly disappointing”, and said he told Anglicare he would speak with them after they spoke to state MP Michael Healy.

The Coalition has promised to invest $2.5 billion in the first five years of the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children.

A girl sits on a bed in a room with a bare floor
More than 200 young people were turned away from Cairns’ two youth shelters in the past year.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

Labor’s candidate for Leichhardt, Elida Faith, said Coalition governments over the past nine years had “failed” to take the task seriously.

The ALP has committed $100 million in crisis accommodation nationally and promised to build 4,000 homes for women and children fleeing violence and older women at risk of homelessness.

Ms Faith said this would include $1 million for crisis accommodation in far north Queensland.

A never-ending cycle

Since the ABC began investigating this story, Anglicare has met with state MP Michael Healy, who said he was confident an announcement on youth crisis accommodation would be coming soon.

“I would expect to see an expansion of our facilities to be able to accommodate anybody being turned away,” Mr Healy said.

Anglicare warned that without more funding and support, the cycles of domestic violence, homelessness, poverty and children in care would continue.

“We’re all suddenly very concerned with domestic violence and saying no one should be subjected to domestic violence,” Ms Lenneberg said.

“But we have no solutions for when they leave.”

Hope for the future

Lily has since found a home for herself and her mother, who was also homeless.

A young girl with long hair looks out a window
Lily says she felt less alone after arriving at St Margaret’s House in Cairns.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

“I’m doing this all for my mum,” she said.

“It’s still hard, the problems don’t go away straight away.

“They’re still there, but they do eventually fade into the background.

Lily said the friends she made through the shelter had helped her confront her mental health issues.

“I focused on myself a bit more and I realised how much trauma I have from [childhood],” she said.

“I had other bad habits that I don’t do anymore because you have friends and you feel like they care for you.”

Success stories welcomed

Ms Lenneberg said there had been many success stories over the years, but she wanted to see more change.

“The solutions are there — supporting families, ensuring that they have the stability of a safe place to live, and then helping them get connected,” she said.

“They’re not terribly high-cost solutions, and by not addressing the issues, the costs to society are enormous when we allow people to sink into despair, and to engage in a range of high-risk behaviours that often accompany that loss of hope.”

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