At the age of 17, Lillie-Mae Groth has a few exceptional achievements under her belt.

Last year she graduated high school, attended her formal, got a job in which she’s been promoted, topped the class in her favourite subject and bought her own car.

At the end of her final year at Narrabri High School, she was also awarded the Brendon Lennox Prize for Persistence and Commitment and in The Courier article profiling accomplishments of the Year 12 class of 2023, Lillie-Mae stated her biggest achievement was graduating high school as a homeless youth.

While she was kicking normal teen goals, Lillie-Mae never expected to be paving the way for a demographic that often flies under the radar in a small country town.

In November 2022, she became the youngest single female to be accommodated at Narrabri Women and Children’s Refuge.

One in six Australian teens will have experienced homelessness, a number that becomes more concerning as we venture into regional communities with fewer options for seeking available help.

Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and their families, and in Lillie-Mae’s case a catalyst for a tumultuous journey as a homeless young person, right at the start of her Year 11 school year.

“Things started getting worse on Christmas Day, then on February 4, 2022, my Mum, younger sister and I had to leave our home – this was a few days before we went back to school,” said Lillie-Mae.

“We went back to the property a few days later to get all our school stuff and then I went and stayed at my best friend’s house for three weeks.”

From then on, Lillie-Mae drifted between homes, spending time with different family members and friends, all while attending school and experiencing varying degrees of homelessness.

When things came to a head and her last temporary accommodation was no longer considered safe, her mum said it was time to call Narrabri and District Community Aid Service (NDCAS).

“Someone once asked me: “What is homelessness? what can classify that?” And I said – if you don’t have a house to live in that is a permanent residence, you’re homeless,” said Lillie-Mae.

“If you’re couch surfing, you’re homeless, if you’re living on the street … there are so many definitions, and I never thought any of those things would apply to me.”

In November of 2022, Jess Weeks was assigned to be Lillie-Mae’s

NDCAS homelessness support caseworker, and while her case was unlike one Jess had ever dealt with, she soon became one of her biggest allies.

“Lillie-Mae was the youngest ever to go into the refuge alone, so she paved the path for NDCAS and for homeless young women in Narrabri Shire,” said Jess.

“It was a tricky decision to move her into the refuge by herself, right before Christmas.

“One thing is for sure though, all things considered, it is lucky that Lillie-Mae is a female because there is no refuge for men in Narrabri.”

One of NDCAS’s priorities was to keep Lillie-Mae in school and do everything in their power to help her graduate, something that becomes an almost impossible outcome for an “at-risk” homeless young person, while also supporting her mental health.

NDCAS support caseworker Jess Weeks with Lillie-Mae Groth.

It’s hard to believe, but there is no national standalone strategy for dealing with homeless young people, something that NDCAS has been highlighting as an important need in the Narrabri Community.

“Lillie’s journey has been restricted by red tape because there is no standalone strategy for unaccompanied young people,” said Jess.

Now that she was in the refuge, the journey began to find Lillie a home.

“I was the youngest female they’d ever had in the refuge on her own – so it was a learning curve for everyone,” said Lillie-Mae.

To support Lillie-Mae’s unique needs, changes were made to help support her mental health.

Then came the seven months wait to make it to Lillie-Mae’s 17th birthday, so she could get her name on a housing register, something that is impossible for an unaccompanied 16-year-old.

The strict refuge safety curfews were tough on the teenager, especially when it came to missing out on activities with friends over the summer holidays.

During that time, NDCAS helped find support for Lillie-Mae’s essentials, as well as the extras to help her keep up with her peers and stay connected to her classmates; like getting her Year 12 jumper and class photos.

In the beginning, Lillie-Mae wasn’t sure how people outside of her situation would react and at times struggled to deal with comments such as, “You aren’t homeless because you are living in a refuge”.

“Overall, when people learned I was homeless, they were shocked that this could happen in Narrabri, but they also realised how grateful they were for the things they have,” said Lillie-Mae.

With the support of her mother and younger sister, NDCAS, Narrabri High School teachers, her friends, and many others along the way, Lillie-Mae was able to get through the insurmountable task of finishing school while living in a refuge.

“I was at the beginning of Year 11 when everything happened, and I think I threw myself into studying so I didn’t have to think about the fact that I didn’t have anywhere to live, and my grades ended up being the best I ever got in school,” said Lillie-Mae.

As well as graduating with plans to apply for a Performing Arts degree, Lillie-Mae topped her class in history – her favourite subject and was stunned to receive the Brendon Lennox award.

“What persistence meant to me was to keep going,” said Lillie-Mae.

“I made the hard choice to quit my job in March of my last year so I could focus on school and everything going on around me because I couldn’t battle homelessness, school, and work – it was too much.

“I almost graduated out of spite, because I wanted to prove to people that I could succeed, even with everything I was going through, I knew I could overcome the odds.”

Wellbeing Health In-reach nurse Wendy White pays weekly visits to Narrabri High School and was able to get Lillie-Mae her first pair of eyeglasses and teachers made sure she had lunch, offered her encouragement and support, and the school helped pay for her formal tickets.

Seeing Lillie-Mae attend her high school formal was a big deal for NDCAS, who were determined to help her find the perfect dress, which they did through the help of a dress store in Toowoomba which donated formal attire for Narrabri Shire students.

“Lillie looked gorgeous, and seeing the smile when she was prancing up and down the hallway trying on all these dresses was priceless,” said Jess.

Graduation day was another triumph, but for NDCAS and Lillie-Mae, the biggest win came on July 31, 2023, when NDCAS was able to help organise a small flat for Lillie-Mae to move into and officially give Lillie-Mae her keys.

“Someone asked me what I was going to wish for my birthday, and I said I’m going to wish for the same thing I wished for last year, a house to live in,” said Lillie-Mae.

“Making a wish on your birthday candles sounds dumb at 17, but I did it.

“My caseworker Jess has done a lot for me – it was hard for me to accept that I had to be an unaccompanied youth, I wanted to live with my Mum, but I knew it couldn’t happen at that moment.”

Once she secured private tenancy, Lillie-Mae had to get special allowance for a bond loan and lease and couldn’t get internet or power without a support letter due to being under 18.

“We had to wait until she was 17 before we could enact this plan and once we could it was all systems go,” said Jess.

“I don’t know how any kid could have gone through all of the complex paperwork and housing requirements without the help of family or organisations like NDCAS, it was insane,” said Jess.

“It was a big year working with Lillie to help her gain independence and keep her moving forward.

“But she’s in, she’s acing her tenancy, everybody loves her, she’s incredible, she’s graduated, she’s done everything she needed to do, and it was worth all the hard times watching her fight through.”

Lillie-Mae learned to become fully independent at 17-years-old, cooking, cleaning and shopping for herself, as well as taking on adult responsibilities like paying car registration, saving for bills, and making sure she had her rent in on time every week.

“It makes me anxious to think about ever being put in that situation again, so when I get paid, I think about rent, groceries, electricity, and making sure I have savings,” said Lillie-Mae.

“Financially I want to get myself to a place where I don’t need to worry about money every week or think about all my responsibilities getting on top of me.”

Where her journey started as a setback, she has now developed the resilience and fundamental life skills to maintain a tenancy and tackle obstacles that come her way.

Lillie-Mae has also just been approved for her own one-bedroom unit with the assistance of a rent choice youth program – which means NDCAS can continue to work with her for the next three years.

“Homeless youth are in a high-risk category for dropping out of school, but Lillie-Mae is an exception,” said Jess.

“She’s a hard girl, she’s as stubborn as stubborn is, and that’s the reason she’s been as successful as she has.

“If you tell her she’s not going to do something she’s going to do it.”

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