Giving young people a bed - and a bit of hope and belief

October 07 2016

THE stereotypical image of homelessness is thankfully disappearing as people realise it's something that could happen to any of us at any time. Relationships break down, people lose jobs, council housing is in short supply - there is little stability in 21st century Britain.

THE stereotypical image of homelessness is thankfully disappearing as people realise it's something that could happen to any of us at any time. Relationships break down, people lose jobs, council housing is in short supply - there is little stability in 21st century Britain.

Those of us with children wonder how they will be able to afford to buy or rent property in the future. Never mind, they'll just have to stay with us. But what about those young people who don't have that luxury? What if a parent is abusive? They don't get on with a step family? They rent a flat but they've just lost their job? There are numerous scenarios which could lead to a young person living rough but what can we do to help?

Emersons Green resident Susanne Frank is one of a growing number of volunteers opening up their homes to youngsters aged between 16 and 25 in need of somewhere to stay for one, two or three nights.

Her job in publishing offers Susanne little opportunity to help others but through working with the charity Bristol Nightstop, she feels she is really "making a difference".

Susanne, 50, found out about Nightstop, which is based at the Old Fire Station near the city centre, when she picked up the charity's flyer three years ago.

Her son had recently left home and she realised that, yes, she did indeed have a spare room and could provide a safe place for a youngster to stay.

Since then she has played host to more than 30 young people, offering more than 100 'bed nights'.

"Young people usually find themselves homeless through family relationship breakdowns," Susanne explained.

"They may have been thrown out by mum or dad or were living with a partner and that didn't work out. Sometimes there could be problems with a landlord. Some are working, some are at college and some are refugees who have a right to remain but can't find work to pay for accommodation until they learn the language here. The fact that there isn't enough council accommodation is hitting young people really hard.

"It's really important that these young people are helped so they don't have to sleep rough or go to the adult night shelter which isn't the place you want to be if you're a young person. A place to stay just for a night or two can help them enormously."

Funded by the Big Lottery, Bristol Nightstop has between 20 and 25 hosts on its books who are vetted and given training. But it's not a huge number given the size of the city and the escalating problem of homelessness.

Susanne admits to being nervous when she received her first young person but not for the reasons you might assume.

"I was nervous about whether they would be comfortable in my house and whether I would feed them the right food! It all turned out to be a lot easier and less frightening than I first thought. I wasn't so nervous about security issues but a lot of people are. They ask if hosts lock away valuables but I can assure everyone that's no issue at all because the young people behave like a guest in your house. They're usually quite timid and some won't even come out of the room.I usually offer one or two nights a week and some weeks I don't offer at all if I've got a lot on. That's what's great about Bristol Nightstop - you can decide how much of your time you give and you can withdraw at any point if something crops up. They won't refer anyone who they consider a risk and they never push - they are just grateful for whatever you offer."

Susanne's 18-year-old daughter is still at home but this is far from a problem.

"We both enjoy meeting new people because it's interesting and stimulating. For her, it's great to have another young person in the house. They have their own chat and banter that I'm not party to!"

Young people are encouraged to talk about themselves to their host family.

"Sometimes the young people will open up and tell you quite a bit, more than they do to the key workers at Nightstop. If it's something dramatic like violence or misuse then we are encouraged to feed that back but so far that hasn't happened. It's more about lending an ear and being someone who hasn't got an agenda. Young people will have encountered people like parents, teachers, social workers, council workers who have an agenda but I'm impartial which hopefully gives them a bit of a break and they open up."

Through meetings with key workers every few months, Susanne is able to find out how the young people she has helped are getting on.

"It's lovely to hear that they've gone on to get a job and have found somewhere safe to stay. Sometimes there won't be a happy ending - they might disappear out of Bristol or continue to have to fend for themselves. You have to be realistic and just do what you can. You can feel so powerless when you hear the news and statistics about homelessness but by doing something practical to make a difference, even to just one person, you feel more empowered."

Susanne gets great satisfaction from volunteering. 

"My day to day job doesn't involve helping people so that's something I enjoy doing in my private time. You see a change in a young person from when they arrive at your house to when they leave the next morning. Sometimes that change is so pronounced that they leave with a huge smile after a good night's sleep and a rest. I can also see a real difference in the young people I've hosted repeatedly. It's a good feeling to know you were there at a critical point in their life when it was really important for them to have a safe place to stay."

You can find out more about Bristol Nightstop and about becoming a host by visiting www.bristolnightstop.org.uk. You can also see Susanne talking about hosting by visiting https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mzk8SLwocho