Putting a roof over their heads

Friday, 06 December 2013

More than a shelter

While the number of homeless young people in the UK is on the rise, their predicament remains a hidden problem. A grant from The Freemasons’ Grand Charity is helping to give young people a roof over their heads as well as the strength to find a better future.

Emily Phillips’s vivid pink hair adds some colour to the white walls and worn black sofas of the night shelter in Blackburn she once called home. It would be easy to mistake the boldness of the colour as an indicator of a brash personality, but she has a quiet confidence that has allowed her to overcome becoming homeless at the age of eighteen.

More than seventy-five thousand people aged sixteen to twenty-four in the UK will experience homelessness this year, and, like Emily, struggle to find a place to sleep each night. They will do this while trying to hold down a job or keep studying at college. Emily was beginning a qualification in childcare when she split up with her boyfriend, whom she had been living with. 

A family breakdown at a young age meant that without relatives to turn to, she spent the next three months sleeping on couches.

‘People don’t think that sleeping on sofas is as serious as sleeping rough, but it’s scary. You’ve got a roof over your head for that night but you have no idea where you’ll be tomorrow,’ recalls Emily. Eventually she sought the help of her college liaison officer who put her in touch with Chris Egan, a support worker at Nightsafe. ‘It was a huge burden off my shoulders knowing that there was someone out there who wanted me to be safe.’

Nightsafe runs a shelter in Blackburn, housing homeless young  people for up to nine nights before they are moved to longer term accommodation at one of its housing projects (Cornfield Cliffe, where Emily has lived for more than a year, and the Witton Project), helped into social housing or given emergency support. 

Five other young people live alongside Emily in Cornfield, where they will stay for up to two years, provided they continue with work, training or education. The stability has enabled Emily to finish her childcare qualification and she has been offered a job as a nursery nurse, which she will start after she returns from a trip to Uganda, where she is volunteering at a school. 

Excited by the opportunities ahead, Emily has been raising money for the Ugandan trip for the past six months. ‘If it wasn’t for Nightsafe I wouldn’t have the opportunities I have now. I don’t know what I would have done. I would have been stuck.’

‘We try and build up the self-esteem of people who come through our doors. It’s easy to feel rejected when you’re made homeless aged sixteen.’ Linda Sharratt

National reach

Thousands of young people across the country find themselves ‘stuck’ every day without a stable home address, hoping that it will be a temporary predicament and that they can avoid the lasting stigma of homelessness. These young adults are the new face of a national population, one that poverty experts and case workers say is growing. Yet the problem is mostly invisible.  

Centrepoint is a leading charity providing a safe place to live for more than one thousand young people each year in London and the North East. It is now reaching out to help regional shelters, and grants totalling £220,000 from The Freemasons’ Grand Charity have funded its national Partnering Project. 

By providing a free consultancy to voluntary organisations, it enables them to build their capacity to support more youngsters. 

Laura Chapman, Chief Executive of the Grand Charity, recognises the importance of pooled resources and a collective effort: ‘The project enables Centrepoint to help many more young people than would otherwise be possible. Having been closely involved from the pilot stage, we are delighted the programme has been successful and is being rolled out further.’

Part of Centrepoint’s offering to Nightsafe is LifeWise, a scheme developed to offer the young people living at the shelter the opportunity to gain an AQA-accredited qualification in life skills. Jim Sexton, development manager for Centrepoint, trains managers, carers and volunteers to deliver the qualification. ‘Most of the young people have missed out on the basic skills that the rest of us take for granted. We aim to get them to a point where they can re-enter education, find work, and live independently.’ 

‘People don’t think that sleeping on sofas is as serious as sleeping rough, but it’s scary. You’ve a roof over your head for a night but no idea where you’ll be tomorrow.’ Emily Phillips

Laying foundations

Simple things like teaching people how to open a bank account, write a CV or cook a healthy meal are all included in the qualification. ‘Even if the content isn’t life-changing for some people, for many it will be the first time in their lives they’ve become qualified in anything,’ says Sexton. ‘It’s about getting people interested in learning and used to having a goal in mind.’

The need to focus on the long-term future of homeless people is a sentiment echoed by the chief executive of Nightsafe, Linda Sharratt: ‘One of our goals is to try and build up the confidence and self-esteem of the people who come through our doors. It’s easy to feel rejected when you’re made homeless aged sixteen.’ 

Sharratt and her team helped two hundred and fifty-three young people last year, about half of whom had slept rough during that time. When it comes to judging success, Sharratt does so on a case-by-case basis: ‘Emily’s done amazingly well, but for others, just making small steps forward is a huge deal.’

The LifeWise programme is just one facet of support that Centrepoint is able to provide to Nightsafe and thirty-seven other charities, located everywhere from Kent to Carlisle, thanks to the Grand Charity’s grant. ‘We bring these small organisations a level of support that allows them to continue to provide their services locally,’ says Sexton. ‘Our partners are a diverse group – some provide accommodation, others provide guidance – but what they all have in common is the aspiration to support homeless and vulnerable young people, just like Centrepoint.’ 

The partnerships also benefit Centrepoint, which can tap into local expertise in order to align its national strategy with changing government policy. ‘It’s not just about putting a roof over someone’s head, we need to think longer term about how to support young people so they can go on to live independently,’ says Sexton. ‘If it wasn’t for the funding from Freemasons, Centrepoint partnering wouldn’t exist, and these partnerships have the power to provide a route out of homelessness.’

Helping the homeless

Freemasons have a long tradition of trying to help people affected by homelessness, through support given by The Freemasons’ Grand Charity. National charity Crisis, for example, has received £705,000 in total – including a significant donation in 2000, which assisted almost four hundred people out of homelessness. Emmaus, Shelter, Depaul UK and Centrepoint have also received donations (together totalling almost £740,000), all of which have aimed to help people find accommodation and also to provide them with opportunities to rebuild their lives in safe and secure environments. In total, the Grand Charity has donated nearly £1.5 million towards supporting homeless people since it was established more than thirty years ago. 

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