Dodging peril on mean streets

It is just after 11pm on a Thursday night and under the glassy gaze of security cameras near Perth train station, two teenagers are preparing to fight.

The boys, who look no older than 16, are taking off their shirts despite the cold, while friends swig from a plastic bottle.

"Once the shirts come off, they're usually going to blue," Mission Australia Youthbeat outreach worker Mike Winton says with the air of someone who has seen it all before.

He has. For Mr Winton, brother to celebrated author Tim, and others like him, it is a quiet night out.

_The West Australian _ spent a night with Youthbeat, the mostly State and Federal government-funded group that provides mobile outreach to vulnerable youth in Perth.

Youthbeat made contact with 2400 young people last year, including 304 who went through its headquarters and 52 who were assigned case managers.

The group works closely with the Department for Child Protection and Family Services and WA Police and aims to connect young people with services to keep them off the streets after dark.

Dylan and Matt are regulars at Youthbeat's Palmerston Street digs. A well-stocked fridge and a pool table give it the vibe of a youth hostel, if you can ignore the policeman in the next room.

Articulate and with ambition of finding work on the mines, 19-year-old Dylan has been on and off the streets since he was 15. Over the years he has been threatened with a knife, lied about his age for accommodation and had "everything" stolen.

"At first it was terrible," he says. "I didn't know what to do. You've got to make yourself smaller to fit in on the street."

Matt, 19, no longer sleeps in the CBD because he does not feel safe but feels more at home in Northbridge, where locals know him.

In comfortable surroundings, with Youthbeat program manager Ciara Crotty heating up sausages in the kitchen, Dylan and Matt are critical of the lack of homeless services but also quick to emphasise their lives are not all bad. They have friends, strangers can be kind and they are part of a community.

But life on the streets for young people is not just bleak but dangerous. Sexual predators are never far away with offers of a place to stay or a mobile phone. Earlier in the evening, Mr Winton met a 12-year-old boy hanging out "10 metres away" from a known sex offender.

Weapons are carried for protection. Drug and alcohol use is rife and exacerbates mental health issues.

As the 10pm curfew hits, Mr Winton and Ms Crotty head out in Youthbeat's van.

In Murray Street they are greeted by two girls who look about 15. They are not homeless but "street present" - disengaged from school and spending a lot of time on the streets.

"It's all about engagement," Ms Crotty says. "We hope if we keep them engaged we can guide them."

She tried to persuade them to go somewhere safe but they do not want to hear it.

Nearby is Chris. Wrapped in a blanket, with the heat from a cooked chicken keeping his bare feet warm, Chris accepts a phone card from Mr Winton with thanks.

The boys who were gearing up for a fight moments ago have cooled off but walk away when Mr Winton and Ms Crotty approach. A call to the CCTV surveillance room ensures the group, which includes several young girls, is on WA Police's radar.

A second call alerts police to the two young girls, now chatting with an elder group. With luck they will be picked up and delivered to Youthbeat's headquarters.

Later the van hits several popular hangouts - a Newcastle Street carpark where a family are sleeping rough, a popular squat housing 20 people at a time and a poorly-lit area of Burswood known as "the bedroom", where up to 100 young people can congregate on a busy night.

Dylan reappears, making his way up James Street on a skateboard. "Do you have a blanket," he asks with a sheepish smile. "I'm stuck in town for the night."

Mr Winton and Ms Crotty promise to return with a doona and ask Dylan if he will be there when they get back.

He shrugs. "Not exactly here but I'll be on this street," he says.

"I'll be around."

We hope if we keep them engaged we can guide them." Youthbeat outreach worker

The West Australian

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