Family with the staying power to help homeless
Hungry teenagers, lots of mess, mountains of washing, bodies sprawled out on sofas watching TV, a tip of a kitchen after a cook up, friends traipsing through the house, unknown numbers for dinner... this is definitely our household with a mum trying to bring some order to the chaos with three offspring aged from 15 to 20, and a menagerie of animals contributing to the overall chaos.
Gordon (dad) arrives home from work, tired but with a resigned shrug to accept what the evening events bring. Probably a normal teenage household in the scheme of things.
If you had asked me a couple of years ago whether we would introduce homeless young people into our already slightly crazy household, my mouth would probably have dropped open, aghast, and I would have been a little scared. I always skirt round the homeless man and dog on the street corners, averting my eyes, wanting to help but feeling inadequate and nervous. So how on earth did we become involved with homeless young people, and how on earth do they seem to slot into our world so easily, bringing benefit to our family as well as vice versa?
It all started with a visit to our church one Sunday night from one of the YMCA project workers who had been invited to talk about the Nightstop scheme for ten minutes in the middle of the service.
"Do you have a spare room" she asked, "and could you offer a hot meal to a young person needing somewhere for the night?"
Spare room; yes, we have one, I thought. The YMCA lady went on to describe the young people desperately needing somewhere safe to stay the night while their housing needs are sorted out – a process that can often take a couple of weeks. These young people have often fallen out with their families, sometimes because of teenage disagreements, (haven't we all been there with our own?) sometimes because of difficulties with step parents or new partners or other family breakdown situations; or sometimes just because there is not enough room in the home, and they are the oldest and told to move out.
I was expecting her to describe street dwellers, but in fact most of the homeless young people are in fact sofa surfers, going from friend to friend, sleeping on sofas until they finally outstay their welcome with everyone. Some of them are still at college or even manage somehow to hold down a job in these difficult circumstances.
My ears were pricked – how could I not offer our spare room to one of these young people needing a leg up at a particularly difficult time in their lives? I was interested but scared. I was invited to meet up with some current Nightstop hosts to find out more about the scheme and how they really found it, introducing homeless young people to their home. Iain and Sarah, who had been Nightstop hosts for about two years, said they would not hesitate to have any of the young people back again. "They all seem just like normal teenagers but obviously facing a very difficult time in their lives," stated Sarah. They explained how the Nightstop scheme worked, with full support and training from the YMCA team, the young people staying a couple of nights and being dropped back to the YMCA during the day to sort out housing applications and to do various training schemes to help them become more independent.
The meeting with Iain and Sarah filled me with enthusiasm for the scheme and gave me the confidence to get involved. I went back home to talk to my teenagers about it all, only to be met with a "yes, we want to help", but with one daughter very apprehensive about having young homeless men in the house. "I just wouldn't feel safe," she said. "It would be scary enough having homeless girls here!"
We all agreed we would go through the training and just have girls and see how it went. Well, it turned out that our chaotic household with a menagerie of animals was the perfect place to host our first young person. Both sides being very apprehensive, within minutes the dogs broke the ice as they welcomed our new guest through the door. It was time to bring the horses up to the stables before dinner, and the new recruit was enlisted into leading up the most well behaved pony. By dinner there was no slither of ice to break and I can honestly say that it was no different to having my own kids' friends over to stay. Mobile apps, texting, soaps on TV, banter at the dinner table – no different to normal. At the end of the first visit my apprehensive teenagers were frankly completely surprised at what an easy experience it was, and on numerous occasions since, the resident Nightstopper had been mistaken as a school or college friend of my lot.
The next milestone was having our first young man to stay, especially after the resounding "no" from my daughter. Liam was 16, just like a brother and had been kicked out of his family home due to conflicts with his family. He arrived the first night and promptly ate two massive helpings of shepherd's pie and half a tin of brownies. He was clearly very hungry and he told of how he had been sofa surfing at a friend's and they had hardly any money for food. After a month the friend could no longer afford to have him there so he ended up at the YMCA and Nightstop was offered to him. Liam was a bright lad and just seemed to fit in and for the girls it was just like having another brother. He stayed several days and it was a real turning point for my daughters. After that all young men were more than welcome and my two girls have felt completely fine with this ever since.
I use the phrase, every little helps, not reinforcing some supermarket's advertising campaign, but as the little bit we can do for a few homeless young people who need a safe place to stay with a hot meal and often a listening ear. They are at a real low point in their lives and just need a bit of a leg up to get back on their feet again. We include them in our family for an evening or a few days. Everyone chips in, sometimes we talk for ages, other times we just watch TV. I never tidy the house or make a huge effort for dinner – they just have what we have, and that way it is not stressful at all when they come. They just join in as if the kids' friends had dropped in for the night.
I am sure we have brought a little happiness to at least some of the Nightstoppers who have been with us, and they in turn have brought something to us – a real gratefulness that we have a loving family that supports each other, and a hope that should any of our youngsters get in a mess at some point in their lives, that someone would do the same for them.
It is so little, but it really helps...