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Somewhere to lay their head

19 October 2012

Young people are being hit hard by the recession. A national scheme, supported by churches, is helping the most vulnerable to avoid homelessness, says Madeleine Davies

Hospitality: Paul Rogers and family

Hospitality: Paul Rogers and family

WHEN Paul Rogers tells people that a young homeless person, whom he has never met before, will be staying at his house, he is asked "quite a lot of questions" - typically, "What on earth do you think you're doing?" His answer is: consider what it might be like to be on the other side of the front door. "I am on the inside. Can you imagine how much scarier it is, ringing the doorbell?"

For the past two years, Mr Rogers, a Baptist minister who lives in south-east London, his wife, and his two young sons have volunteered as hosts for DePaul UK's Nightstop scheme. This means that, most weeks, a young homeless person in need of emergency accommodation will stay with the family overnight.

Last year, volunteers such as the Rogerses provided more than 9000 nights of housing to more than 3000 young people, through 40 Nightstop schemes accredited by DePaul UK. The idea is to provide a stopgap until a more permanent solution can be found.

"One person turned up with a big grin on his face to say: 'Thank you for having me. On Monday, I get the keys to a flat,'" Mr Rogers says. And he was able to offer one girl a three night-stay; "so that she was able to start college".

Some of the stories, he says, are heart-breaking, such as the young woman who lost her boyfriend, flat, and college course in a week. Getting his guests to stop saying thank you is, he says, one of the "difficulties".

THE manager of Nightstop in London, Stella Ajuwa, believes that youth homelessess is on the rise, particularly in the capital: "We are finding that more and more young people are having to fend for themselves." The 20 per cent of young people aged 16 to 24 who are unemployed, and the hints from the Government that it may cut housing benefit for those under 25 remain causes for concern.

The latest figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government show that councils accepted 12,860 applications from people claiming homelessness between April and June this year - a nine-per-cent increase on the same quarter last year. Of these, 430 were young people aged from 16 to 18, who had left care. But these figures include only young people who meet the current legal definition of homelessness.

A University of York study published last year, Ending Youth Homelessness, estimated that the number of 16-to-24-year-olds in the UK who experience homelessness every year is 80,000. The consequences are often grave. Research suggests that young people are highly vulnerable to sexual assault, violence, and crime if they spend any time on the streets.

Jude Todd, who has been hosting for DePaul UK since 2005, believes that a "fear of young people" exists in the UK. "There is a lot of negativity up against them, before they even start, and if you label them with the word 'homeless', they see that as their worst nightmare. . . Once you meet them, or hear about what it's really about, it's very different."

Most young people are referred to Nightstop because of family breakdown. An evaluation of the scheme carried out in 2010 found that almost half the young people had been thrown out of their family home.

BESIDES providing accommoda-tion, DePaul UK carries out prevention work, delivers talks and conflict-resolution courses in schools, and offers mediation between young people and their families. Last year, an analysis of the Reconnect scheme found that homelessness was prevented in 82 per cent of cases.

"The common thing to all of them [people who stay] was that it wasn't their choice; it wasn't their fault," Ms Todd says. "They really are quite young, at the end of the day. There are a lot of triggers to bring about family breakdown. It could be that their parents have lost employment. . . A grandparent may not be able to manage any more. There are situations where illness in the family has just got too much.

"There was a young person kicked out because he came out as gay. I've had young people from poor backgrounds, and those from very, very wealthy backgrounds."

Ms Todd is part of DePaul UK's Supported Lodgings scheme, which offers young people a home for six months to two years, as a stepping stone, until they have the skills to live independently. Having been homeless herself at the age of 16, she "knew how much a room could mean to someone. . . . Nightstop enabled me to do something in a very safe and supported way."

Volunteers for both Nightstop and Supported Lodgings are assessed by DePaul UK, which conducts a CRB check and collects references. They also receive training on various issues, including boundaries, confidentiality, and safeguarding.

"We tease out what people's attitudes are towards certain things," Ms Ajuwa says. "What if you find a knife in their pocket? We want them to think about the worst-case scenario, and how to respond accordingly."

DEPAUL UK offers a 24/7 on-call advice and assistance service for hosts, but, in the London scheme that Ms Ajuwa manages, there has been no place-ment breakdown despite Nightstop's accepting people with "complex issues".

"We are not risk-averse. . . We know what the risks are, and if they are being managed, we can deal with it. If they used to use heroin, and are on methodone on a regular basis, it is a risk issue, but it is being managed, because they are on medication.

"One of the things we say no to is intoxication on the day. . . We have placed young people with self-harm issues or suicide attempts. We do accept people who have [been involved in] criminal activity, but it depends. A burglary two weeks ago would probably be a no, but a burglary three years ago, explained away, would probably be a yes."

Both Mr Rogers and Ms Todd report that they have never needed to call the assistance line.

"Once you have tried it, it changes your mind about a lot of things," Mr Rogers says. "These are folk for whom, at the moment, life has gone terribly wrong, and they are making steps to try and put things back together again."

They are "polite, generous, and grateful," Ms Todd says. "I think their parents would probably be proud of them; they really are very sweet." She will often end up acting as a listening ear for her guests.

"Every boy who has stayed with me has cried. . . [they] are so lost, they are very vulnerable, emotionally. . . Sometimes they are gabbling on and then they will say 'That has been the best day of my life; you listened to me.' . . . One said: 'Nobody's cooked for me for four years.' He was only 17.

"I think that people don't realise that you don't need to run in and fix all of their lives: it's basic acts which really touch them. . . If somebody says: 'Actually, you are worth something,' or shows it in actions, it goes a really long way to counteract some of the harder things that have happened to them. It really does plant hope in them."

Ms Todd is now running DePaul's New Forest Nightstop, one of 21 projects shortlisted for this year's National Lottery Awards.

For Mr Rogers, "welcoming the stranger" is part of his faith. "These are categories of people actually mentioned in scripture, and you've got to take notice of that."

Clare Connors, who has been offering Supported Lodgings at her home in Whitley Bay since 2009, believes that the common thread that links her guests is "the need for an adult who is consistently interested in them and their lives - because, often, they come out of quite a lot of chaos. . . . My approach is that I always say what I mean, and do what I say. Over time, it becomes clear that I can be relied on."

DEPAUL UK is constantly looking for more volunteers who are able to open up their home, ideally for at least one night, once a week. Ms Ajuwa reports that, in London, "every day we have to turn people away."

Funding from local authorities in the current climate is "quite difficult", even though Nightstop could be a much cheaper and more appropriate alternative to bed-and-breakfast accommodation for young people, she says. Those already involved are the charity's best advocates.

"I would say, Give it a go," Ms Connors says. "My life is transformed by being part of this scheme. . . It's lovely: it's been a gift to me."

www.depauluk.org

KATIE WANJIRU MINDO, now aged 26, was facing a "dark time" when she first found help at Nightstop, in the New Forest.

She had moved to the UK from Kenya, aged 15, to join her mother after a "difficult childhood", in which she was sexually abused and raped. Katie then faced bullying at school, where she was the only black student.

She left home after her mother moved in with a partner, with whom she clashed. Katie was diagnosed with depression, and struggled to navigate the benefits system. Eventually, she found herself on the streets, "where I wanted to take my life in a place that I felt was private".

Since her first night at Jude Todd's home, however, her life has been turned around. She has completed all three of the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, and the Prince's Trust programme, and has received the Prime Minister's Award for National Civic Service.

This summer, in recognition of her commitment to her community, she carried the Olympic torch in Ringwood. She now plans to gain a degree in youth work after completing a college access course.

"A volunteer saved my life," she says. "These are ordinary people, but what they are doing is extraordinary."

ROB, who is 21, left home after his relationship with his mother broke down.

It took him a long time to feel at home in his Supported Lodgings, having "moved around so much with my mum. But it is definitely a place I call home now."

He has benefited from "a stable environment to work in", and he is now at university, studying sport and exercise development.

Homelessness is "a waste of a life", he says. "I think a lot of people think these people are stupid, and haven't got a lot to give to the community, but they get stepped on."ERNESTAS, who is 18, spent eight nights with a Nightstop host four months ago, after his father made him leave home. "I was nervous, because I did not know the person, but after one or two days I felt comfortable".

Now living in a hostel, he is studying for his GCSEs, does volunteer work twice a week and plans to become a gym instructor. "I would definitely recommend Nightstop," he says.

Names have been changed

 

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