Would you offer a homeless youngster your spare room for the night? Thousands of people across Britain do, via a project run by the charity founded by Cardinal Hume. Joanna Moorhead reports.
It was a dark, cold night and 17-year-old Cassie was standing on the pavement outside a house on the outskirts of London. A few days earlier, after a huge row with her mother, she had stormed out of the family home. For the last few nights she’d been sleeping on the sofa at a friend’s house – but it couldn’t go on forever, and that morning she’d had to leave. By lunchtime she was homeless.
Cassie had gone to the office of a charity working with teenagers – but she’d been shocked to hear that the only place she was likely to find shelter was a bed and breakfast. ‘I was horrified,’ she remembers. ‘I knew the sort of people I’d meet there – drug addicts and alcoholics, the long-term homeless who are mostly elderly men. I said to the staff at the charity, I think I’d rather sleep on a park bench than go to one of those places.’
Then the charity worker mentioned an organisation called Nightstop, which provides emergency accommodation for young people aged 16-24 in ordinary homes. ‘I was amazed to hear something like that existed – I thought, how brilliant that there are people out there who’d do that,’ she says.
Nightstop was set up by a group of Christians in Leeds in 1986 as a response to the Church of England report Faith in the City. The group was concerned at the number of homeless youngsters in the town centre and thought they’d try a simple approach and ask people who had a spare bedroom to offer them a place for the night. They were told that working with the homeless was too specialised for amateur do-gooders, that their approach would never work, and that they’d never find anyone stupid enough to open up their home to a complete stranger.
Three decades on, Nightstop is a national initiative run by Depaul UK, a charity founded by Cardinal Basil Hume in 1989 to provide help for homeless youngsters. In 2013, around 740 households across Britain did what the doubters in Leeds thought would never happen, and opened their doors to the homeless, providing around 10,000 bed-nights to young people who suddenly found themselves without a roof over their heads, usually because of some sort of family fallout.
Nightstop hosts are people like Jenny Cairns of New Malden in Surrey, a parishioner at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wimbledon. Several years ago Jenny got involved with a local charity for the homeless in her area, and through that became aware of the different needs. So, she says, when she heard what Nightstop was doing she could see straight away what an important role it served. ‘Young people who have had a row with their family, or become homeless for some other reason, aren’t going to be well served by being put into temporary accommodation with the long-term homeless,’ she says. ‘These youngsters are very vulnerable, and we know there are junkies and drug-pushers who target people like them. I could see that providing youngsters with safe accommodation in ordinary homes was a really important way to stop their situation escalating into something long-term and potentially much more serious.’
Jenny and her husband Michael, who are in their sixties and have grown-up children and grandchildren, contacted Nightstop – but, like most of the people who host for the charity, they weren’t without their concerns. ‘My daughter was worried about the safety aspect – you’re aware that you’re allowing yourself to be vulnerable, by inviting someone you don’t know into your home,’ she says.
‘But when I got in touch with Nightstop I was reassured: I could see what a professional organisation it is.’ Young people using the service are screened to ensure they don’t have mental health problems, they’re not alcohol users or drug takes, and they don’t have a criminal record. Hosts tell Nightstop the dates on which they’re free to receive guests, and are then given information early in the day about who the potential young person they’d be putting up is. If, having heard the history, they have any worries they’re free to
Jenny and Michael welcomed their first Nightstop guest about 18 months ago: since then, around 40 young people have stayed over with them. Jenny says it was sometimes daunting at first- but like most hosts she’s never had any problems (in all its history, the only problem was an occasion when a youngster stole a mobile phone) and seeing the difference it makes to people has redoubled her efforts to be part of it, and she also helps recruit others – several other parishioners at the Sacred Heart have followed her lead.
She says no two guests are alike. ‘Some of them are barely 16, others are in their early twenties,’ she says. ‘Some arrive literally with nothing, others have a wheelie suitcase. Sometimes they’re students trying to get work done in the evening; some like to sit with us and watch the television after supper and chat.
‘The one thing they do have in common, though, is that none of them have a family to fall back on, for whatever reason. And I hope what we do is provide a kind of temporary family, for that one night.
‘What we provide is emergency accommodation – it’s a stop-gap, until they can find something more permanent. For the people who come to stay, it’s a real lifeline, because without it they’d be in a much more difficult environment.’
From their point of view, says Jenny, she and Michael gain a huge amount from their involvement in Nightstop. ‘We had someone recently and we were told that, many years ago, he’d had a police caution for carrying a knife. And I wondered whether we should say yes; but we decided to go ahead, and that young man was one of the most delightful people we’ve ever had to stay.’
According to Martin Houghton-Brown, chief executive of Depaul UK, all sorts of people host for Nightstop: some are single, some are young couples with children, others older families with teenage children. All you need to be able to do it is a spare bedroom. Hosts go on a training course, and are given an allowance to cover their costs. Guests leave after breakfast – usually, says Jenny, they’re heading for a housing association or charity that can help them find more permanent accommodation and help them out of their predicament.
And what happened to Cassie? She’s now 19, and two years on she remembers very clearly her experience with Nightstop. ‘When they told me they’d found someone who’d have me for the night I cried with relief,’ she says. ‘I was given an address and the first name of the woman who was offering me her spare room, and I set off across London to her home.
‘When I got there I was suddenly terrified: I stood outside her house for at least 15 minutes trying to summon up the courage to ring the doorbell. But when I did this woman – Michelle – was suddenly there on the doorstep, so welcoming and friendly and kind.
‘I remember having a hot shower and being so grateful for it; and I chatted for ages to Michelle, and she was so lovely. I really was at rock-bottom that night: I’d been depressed, I’d been self-harming, and it felt as though my life was over.’
After her night at Michelle’s, Cassie was given a room in a young people’s hostel where she stayed for six months. Today she’s at home again and, she says, her relationship with her mum is back on track. What happened with Nightstop made a difference that went far beyond one night. ‘Michelle’s kindness reminded me that there are good human beings in this world. There are people who care, and people who will put themselves out for you. It gave me hope and made me think it was worth picking myself up and trying again with my life.’