The volunteers providing a haven for young homeless people

Mollie Somerville, a volunteer host in Bradford who helps a homeless charity by taking in someone for the night.  (Picture Bruce Rollinson).
Mollie Somerville, a volunteer host in Bradford who helps a homeless charity by taking in someone for the night. (Picture Bruce Rollinson).
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Youth homelessness remains a major issue. Chris Bond looks at how one charity is tackling the problem and speaks to a volunteer who helps prevent young people from sleeping rough.

The fact we are the world’s fifth largest economy yet there will be children sleeping on our streets tonight because they have nowhere else to go, is a stain on society.

Depaul UK's Nightstop service plays an important role in helping young homeless people.

Depaul UK's Nightstop service plays an important role in helping young homeless people.

Despite attempts by successive governments – and political leaders such as Boris Johnson who, as Mayor of London, pledged to end rough sleeping in the capital by 2012 – to tackle the issue, the sight of homeless people remains all too familiar.

Figures recorded last autumn show there were 3,569 rough sleepers on any one night in England – more than double the number from 2010.

In Homeless Link’s Young and Homeless 2015 report, it warned that despite increases in prevention work youth homelessness remained a “significant concern” and that half of people accessing homeless accommodation projects in England were under the age of 25.

Depaul UK is among the charities working on the frontline to bring an end to the social scourge of homelessness.

Its Nightstop service is designed to stop young people, aged from 16 to 25, from sleeping rough and entering a wretched cycle of homelessness and unemployment.

The idea is that each service, and there are now 34 in Depaul UK network, has volunteer hosts who provide a room, evening meal and a listening ear to a young homeless person for a night in their own home.

The latest Nightstop service, funded by a £200,000 People’s Postcode Lottery grant, is being launched in Sheffield in August and hopes to recruit 45 volunteers.

Amy Smith, who runs the new service, says homelessness can have devastating consequences. “It is a shocking statistic that, on average, people who are homeless can expect to die at the age of just 47.

“Homelessness is rising as a result of the current economic conditions and, from our current work in the city, we know how serious the homelessness problem is in Sheffield.”

The idea is that once this service is established it will then spread out into the rest of South Yorkshire.

One of the chief reasons why young people become homeless in the first place is because their parents or carers are no longer able to look after them, or due to family breakdowns.

Recent research into the scale of youth homelessness suggests that it may have increased in recent years, which goes against statutory trends that point to a drop in the number of young homeless people.

Smith believes one of the reasons for this is how homelessness is recorded. “There seems to have been a change in definition of homelessness. Someone who is staying with a friend because they don’t have anywhere else to go, are they homeless? We would say ‘yes.’”

As well as concerns about the level of rough sleeping among young people, there are fears about this so-called “sofa surfing” which has become a hidden form of homelessness.

“There seems to be more sofa surfing but this can become unsafe because people move from one friend of a friend to another and the further removed they are from that person the more at risk of exploitation and abuse they are.”

Which is why charities like Depaul UK and their Nightstop service play such an important role. Smith says the volunteers, who all get trained to be hosts, come from various backgrounds.

“It’s everybody and anybody, from people with young families right through to retired people. They need to be warm, welcoming, non-judgemental and prepared to open their doors to a young person who’s in need.”

Mollie Somerville, along with her husband David, has been taking in homeless people for the last 22 years, offering them a bed for the night, as well as food and warmth.

Mollie, a retired teacher, is a volunteer with Bradford Nightstop and has helped hundreds of young people during this time.

“When we first started we had three teenage boys of our own and we were aware of seeing young homeless people on the streets.

“We’d heard about Nightstop and we had a spare room and wanted to get involved,” she says.

“We weren’t scared about theft or violence because we’d been trained and we knew what to expect. The main worry was how our children would react to someone else coming into the house.”

She says it’s a much more daunting experience for a young homeless person than their host. “They’re coming into a house they don’t know with people they don’t know, often in area of town they don’t know and they’re all alone with nowhere to go. So they’re already very vulnerable and they’re far more nervous than you are.”

Volunteers like Mollie are there to provide emergency accommodation usually only for a single night before the person is moved on, hopefully into more long term housing.

“You don’t try and build up a close relationship because they aren’t staying with you for long. To begin with that was hard then you get used to it and you realise that you’re there to provide a safe space, food, a bed for the night and the chance to have a wash and a soak.

“It’s important for these young people because the alternative is they end up sleeping on the streets.”

Mollie says people’s perception of homelessness can often be inaccurate. “It’s not the sort of image people would think. The people we help aren’t scruffy, they’re not begging on the streets. They’ve usually been thrown out of their house because of tension in their home.

“They often look quite smart and they come from all walks of life. You can’t say that one sort of person is going to be homeless, it can be anybody.”

She says she and her husband took in an average of two people a week last year and believes numbers have gone up. “There’s more people from ethnic minorities today, but that might be because they weren’t being referred before. But the reasons for homelessness don’t seem to have changed much.”

Mollie says she sometimes bumps into people who have stayed with her in the past. “They normally recognise us first and make a point of coming over and saying ‘hello’ and thanking us for giving them somewhere to stay.”

She’s keen to point out that she’s never had any real problems with people who have stayed with them and wants to encourage others to get involved.

“When I talk to ordinary people they often say they couldn’t let anybody stay in their house who they didn’t know. But people shouldn’t be scared of doing something like this because you get training and all the safeguards are in place.”

And it’s a rewarding experience. “You feel like you’re making a difference, even in just a small way, and I think most people want to do that in their life.”

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Kevin’s story of homelessness

Kevin had lived with foster parents before moving in to a supported housing scheme in the Shipley area. He lost his tenancy after he struggled to pay to pay his rent and became depressed, living in a succession of temporary hostels.

He was referred to Bradford Nightstop when he was 17 where he stayed with a variety of hosts and slowly built up his confidence, allowing him to move back into a supported housing scheme. He was settled there for a time, but was later evicted and his depression returned.

After spending several nights with a host, staff at Bradford Nightstop talked to Kevin about his future and he decided, with the support of his social worker, to go back to live his mother and rebuild their relationship.