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A bridge to far horizons;Profile;The Bridges Project

As homelessness becomes a growing problem in Scotland, Raymond Ross looks at two initiatives trying to keep young people off the streets

Seventeen-year-old Jenny is from Edinburgh, and has been homeless twice. The first time was in October 1996 for three weeks, when she was in fourth year. She didn't attend school for those weeks, nor again from March to May 1997 when she once again became homeless. She only went back to her high school for the leaving ceremony.

Jenny was brought up by her alcoholic mother until she was eight when she went to live with her father and step-mother after an argument with her mother. She hasn't seen her father since she left home a year ago. At present she is living with her boyfriend's parents until she gets furniture for her new council flat.

"I know my dad loves me but he's also disappointed in me. I want a better education and a good job. I want my dad to say 'She's done it. I never thought she would, but she's done it'."

Jenny left home because of problems with her father. "I regret the way I left home. But I don't regret leaving. My dad was too strict. I got on well with my step-mum as I regarded her as my mum in the situation. But I can't live with my dad, who still wants to treat me as a child.

"My real mum indulged me because she was an alcoholic and I was used to being out till 10 o'clock at night when I was only six. When I was 16, my dad was making me come in at 8.30 on school nights and 9 o'clock at weekends. Being out late was all I knew as a child and so I didn't know any better. I'm happier now than at my dad's. I don't go home and cry like I did then."

Jenny left school with seven Standard grades, dropping out in her fifth year. "I did pretty well in fourth year and then started doing three Highers. But I dropped them one by one as the problems really started at home. I couldn't get my folio for English done and the prelims didn't go well. I had planned to do the Highers over two years".

When she left home the first time she stayed with her real mother - "though she has an evil tongue in drink" - and then with her boyfriend. "I did get temporary accommodation in Niddrie, but I could only stay in the flat for one night. I was petrified going there because there was a lot of violence around, too much fighting and shouting, so I went to stay with friends in Wester Hailes."

Two years ago, Jenny took an overdose. "I swallowed 24 aspirins but somehow made it into school the next day. My head was like a balloon and my stomach was like a bit of lead holding it down. I was taken home and given plenty of liquid. I was then seen by a counsellor and a youth worker.

"Nobody explained to me who or what kind of counsellor he was. He didn't give me any advice. He just asked questions. The youth worker was more helpful. The overdose was attention-seeking. It was a cry for help. I can see that now. But at the time I was deadly serious. I wanted to kill myself."

Jenny finally got help from the Bridges' One-Door Initiative, which has been set up to offer new opportunities for young people who are homeless or at risk. The Bridges Project offers a walk-in and Freephone advice service which is, in effect, the "one door" into the range of services directly or indirectly offered by the agency.

The majority of referrals are self-referrals. Almost half of the young people who have used the service are successful in gaining a housing association or local authority tenancy and a third gain places in supported accommodation.

Jenny now has a council flat and is determined to finish her education, but her situation is complicated by the fact that she is pregnant. Her baby is due in July.

"I want to work with kids in a nursery or as a childminder. I want to do a course in childcare and education as well as first aid and child psychology. That's important because not many nursery nurses have a qualification in child psychology. But with the baby due in July, I won't be able to start the course until October and most courses begin in August or September. Maybe I could start the course work at home," she says.

Jenny has done voluntary work in nurseries and sometimes looks after friends' children. Her interest in working with children goes back to when she was six and her elder sister had a child who was often left with her mother to be looked after. But with her mother being in the pub a lot of the time, childcare was more often left to Jenny. Determined and independent though she is, her own pregnancy has brought new problems.

"I don't know that things will last with my boyfriend. I'm determined to have the baby even if he doesn't want it. I won't abort it. If he can't cope, that's the end of the relationship. I'd rather have the baby on my own than an abortion on my own. Once I get my furniture I'll be on my own in my own flat. He might move in after a couple of months.

"My big sister has had three kids to three different guys. She's no job and no qualifications. My dad says I'll end up like her. He doesn't know I'm pregnant yet."

The Bridges Project is based at 55 Albany Street, Edinburgh (weekdays 11am to 4pm). Freephone 0800 590885.

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