Most Friday nights, a group of young men gather around a food van in Sydney’s south-west.

While the lure might be free chicken and chips, it’s also an opportunity for them to talk to professionals about some serious issues they face: often relating to alcohol, drugs and dealing with police.

One of the boys says: “We have learned lots: be careful, don’t get searched by police. We learn how to talk with the cops.”

Youth workers from Barnardos and Bankstown Multicultural Youth work closely with the young men over a period of months -- and sometimes years -- to build relationships of trust. Then they can provide support on employment, education and counselling.

In addition, a solicitor from Marrickville Legal Centre is on hand on Friday nights to offer free legal advice in an informal environment.

“Sadly, they often feel like they are targeted by police,” says Vasili Maroulis, a youth solicitor at Marrickville Legal Centre. “They want to know: if I’m standing here, do I have to move if they ask me? They’ve taken my phone, they won’t give it back: are they allowed to do that?”

Barnardos' youth worker Leonard Perelini says most of the young men are from middle eastern backgrounds, but there are also Sudanese, Palestinians and Lebanese.

“We have a soft entry point, which is the food truck to build rapport and the conversation. It gives them the opportunity to meet with us,” he says.

Appropriately enough, the mantra for Streetwork is "working with young people on their own turf and on their own terms”.

Bankstown Multicultural Youth social worker Kurtis Lyon says it’s important to meet the young men in own territory.

“The value is being able to bring our resources out to the streets where they are, instead of them coming to our offices. This shows that we really want to help: we’re going to them and giving everyone a free feed.”

Marrickville Legal Centre has worked with several of the young men to maintain their clean criminal record, which helps with future employment opportunities.

“I often say that they are at an age where you want to open doors, not close them, so that’s what we do,” says Vasili.

The food van has been going out around Sydney’s south-west for most of 2017, but the Barnardos Streetwork program has been operational since 1990. It is funded by NSW Health.


Photo: Kurtis Lyon (left), Vasili Maroulis (middle) and Leonard Perelini (right)

Photo: Kurtis Lyon (left), Vasili Maroulis (middle) and Leonard Perelini (right)