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Young homeless people may have a pressing need for shelter, but education is the real key to helping them lead independent lives. Luckily, a Birmingham charity is offering them both. Wendy Wallace reports.

Rachel, a big girl with a gentle air, came out of the care system with no particular place to go. Dawn fell out with her mother over a gold chain. Martin suffered from undiagnosed clinical depression - termed by those around him as "going off the rails" - and despite a university degree ended up in a hostel for homeless men in Leeds.

Research by Dr Joan Smith, of Staffordshire University, indicates that in parts of the UK, up to one in 10 young people aged 16-25 experiences homelessness, much of it hidden. For each person in a sleeping bag in a shop doorway - what charities in the field call the "sharp end" - several more are sleeping on friends' floors, lodging with reluctant relatives or camping out in unsuitable, insecure accommodation.

The link between homelessness and the lack of schoolingis becoming increasingly clear. Not only have a disproportionate number of homeless young people been excluded from school - 40 per cent according to a recent study in Birmingham - but most of them would need education more than bricks and mortar to lead successful independent lives. "Our work is increasingly about re-engaging young people with education or training. It's much less about finding a roof," says Jean Templeton, managing director of St Basil's, a Birmingham charity working with young homeless people.

Her words are borne out by the growing percentage of young homeless people who come to the charity having tried, but failed, to live alone. Managing money, coping with loneliness, even getting up in the morning can all prove too much for young people who may have already experienced much hardship and little success at school or work. "We're more aware now of the combined factors that lead to homelessness," Jean Templeton says. "You don't wake up one morning and think, 'I'm going to walk out of this comfortable, warm house and sleep rough tonight'. You don't choose to go into prostitution or become hooked on a substance. That's not an ambition."

As well as short-term emergency hostel accommodation, St Basil's has a small housing estate of its own, Edmonds Court Foyer. It is part of the foyer movement, a collection of voluntary organisations that provide short-term housing linked to training for around 5,000 homeless or disadvantaged 16 to 25-year-oldsat more than 100 sites across the UK. At Edmonds Court, young people can get sheltered housing for up to two years if they also agree to sign up for education and training. "We try to identify what they want to do and what they need to achieve it," says Paul Tilsley, education and employment training manager at St Basil's. "If clients aren't prepared to undergo training, the foyer is not right for them."

The 48 bedsits and small flats house up to 70 people - including 22 babies under the age of two. Half the places are reserved for young parents. Almost 70 per cent of the client group have no educational qualifications on arrival, says Mr Tilsley. Many are from the care system or splintered families. But the pressure is on these young people to achieve. "As far as the Government is concerned, sitting on your butt is no longer an option," says Mr Tilsley. "This is an intensive, holistic environment for young people to fulfil some of their potential."

Two local colleges come to Edmonds Court to offer classes in IT, literacy, numeracy and English. Students can do short courses here in food hygiene, first aid or catering. Others go off to college-based courses. As well as the more conventional subjects, students can study confidence-building and resettlement skills, offered with East Birmingham College and other partners. "Having training in here makes it a bit easier," says 18-year-old Rachel, who has studied childcare, group skills and textiles at the foyer. "But it's not there for you on a plate. You have to interact. I'd like to work with young people, because I've experienced quite a lot myself."

The orange walls of her bedsit are covered in snapshots of the sisters she never sees - and one she does. Alongside the courses Rachel is doing, she is practising paying rent weekly out of her benefits and feeding herself, although there is little evidence for this in her bare kitchenette. "Go to sleep, there's no one to harm you. God is watching over you," reads the computer printout over her bed. Sixty per cent of Edmonds Court residents, says Mr Tilsley, "leave with a piece of paper in their hands". He adds: "We want to build on it. We need to achieve more, for their benefit."

Edmonds Court is to become a centre for Learn Direct, the Government's new computer-based distance-learning initiative intended to cover everything from basic skills to postgraduate study, and is going for the Basic Skills quality mark. Some of the education is formal. Much of it is informal, based on the actions of St Basil's staff.

Foyer manager Jennifer Johnson says: "It's about acting as role models, trying to do the right thing." Staff have to model responsible behaviour and co-operative living to young people for whom these are novelties. "Our roles change so many times throughout the day," says project worker Angela Hall. "One minute you're a rent collector, then a friend or foe, then a counsellor. You try hard not to be mum because you don't want them to become dependent. For most it's the basis of a new start."

Parent education is an important part of what is on offer, and takes place in the newly- built creche adjoining the foyer's adult classroom. Ms Johnson describes singing a nursery rhyme to one of the babies. "The mum looked at me as if I was crazy. Many of our young people were never parented. Mums and dads learn to assert themselves differently here."

Kelly, 18, lives at Edmonds Court with her 16-month-old daughter, Jodie. She left home and school at 15. "I wanted space and freedom," she says. "I'm getting into the training now, but it's hard getting out of bed early enough."

Staff from Brook Advisory, the contraception and sexual health counselling service, come in to give talks, as do workers from the local Sure Start programme. Residents who fail to stick with their courses have often given in to outside influences, say project workers. Homelessness and addiction often go hand in hand, and Ms Johnson constantly keeps one eye on the CCTV monitor in her office. "We're bang in the middle of heroin heaven," she says. "We have to work very hard, be very aware of the problem." Drugs are not allowed on the premises and residents are encouraged to help to police their own community.

The charity takes every opportunity to celebrate the young people's achievements. At a recent awards ceremony, St Basil's managing director said she felt as if they were running a "parallel education system". Jean Templeton says: "It's an alternative for those who've fallen out of the conventional system. These young people don't have the licence of student days to practise for adulthood, to share accommodation, make friends, make mistakes." For many, St Basil's becomes "the family".

Another St Basil's project, known as "New Boot", provides emergency accommodation for up to a month for young men, some coming off the street. Mainly aged 18-20, they are ill-equipped for independent living, says senior project worker Pete Willsher. "Most want a goal that is three or four years away - such as moving into a flat - now. We help them to see that it's not the obvious next step for them."

The single biggest obstacle to self-sufficiency for the over-18s, who, unlike 16 to 18-year-olds, have an automatic entitlement to benefits, is their inability to manage a budget. But this springs from wider educational shortcomings. "Literacy and numeracy are problems," says Mr Willsher. "But it's the ability to assess priority and necessity over desire."

Despite a government drive to get homeless people off the streets, in Birmingham at least, the flow of young people into homeless situations is as great or greater than it was in 1996, according to Dr Joan Smith's research. One in 20 young people per year applies as homeless to agencies in Birmingham, and the voluntary sector is experiencing rising demand for its services among young, single people.

All young people's names have been changed


Shelley, 20, has lived in eight places in the past three years, and now hopes to return to her mother's flat. She spent a year in a local authority flat in a rough part of town, which was broken into seven times while she was there. "I found out that the area is notorious for drugs and crime," she says. Now in a hostel for young homeless women, she has had to get rid of her dog and two cats.

One of eight children, she had not spoken to her family for three months when - at her request - one of the St Basil's mediation team made the initial phone call home for her. "I'd been missing Mum for ages," she says. "It was the right time and the right place to get back together. I saw her three days later and it was a load of crying.

"I've always been a strong person but my Mum always chooses my sister over me. I think she is changing. Before, she thought I was the enemy. She used to lock me out on a regular basis and I used to bang on the door to be let in. She knows now that if she does it once, that'll be it. I want to live back on my own again. But this time I want to move out properly."

Simone, 22, lives at Edmonds Court Foyer with her two-year-old son. Her five-year-old daughter lives with Simone's mother. Simone is one of nine children but describes the project as "like an extended family". She says:

"We've got a rapport with the staff and the residents." She moved out of her parents' house after a row and stayed with cousins, then friends. "I just felt I was a burden," she says. "And I had my children with me, which made it worse." She got a flat from the local authority but got into debt before coming to St Basil's.

Bright and articulate, Simone has taken late to study. "When I first came here I just was bringing up my kids," she says. "I never really liked school, I didn't want to be there. I left with no GCSEs." It took six weeks, she says, to get used to the courses she started at the foyer. "I got a couple of qualifications with the internet and things. I go to college now, doing leisure and tourism. I didn't think I'd ever go back to college."

She still has a lot to cope with. "My dad passed away three weeks ago and I've let my assignments get on top of me," she says. "But I really want to pass this course and I'm feeling better now." She hopes to work as cabin crew for an airline.

Simone has lived at the Foyer for a year and hopes to move to a housing association place, near her daughter's school. "I know I'm going to be ready soon," she says. "I had my own property before and it didn't work out. This place has built up my confidence for living on my own. If I feel like I can't budget, I can talk with my key worker and they'll help."

Gemma looks 14 but is 20 and a mother of three children, none of them in her care. After a disrupted childhood and education marred by what she calls her bad temper - "From the age of two I've had a bad temper. I used to go round stabbing people with pencils. Then I used to be slashing my wrists" - she went into a children's home at 15. With support from St Basil's resettlement centre - where she has come to borrow a fiver when we meet her - she recently moved into a local authority flat after living in nine hostels. "They gave me a lot of support," she says, "even though sometimes I've chucked it back in their faces. They're a friendly place.

"I do feel lonely, being in my flat on my own. And there's nothing in it, I'm sleeping on the couch and there's no electric. I had a party, that went well. When people come and see me they'll have to take their shoes off, when I've got my carpet."

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