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Homeless cross learning threshold

Martin Edwards reports on lessons learned from a successful programme that brought education to the capital's rough-sleepers

A PROJECT which gave rough-sleepers a taste of studying is being held up as an example of how homeless people can be brought into education.

A report has just been published about the success of the Rolling Shelter Project, a nine-month scheme which finished in September 2001. It was run by the City Literary Institute in London and involved 23 arts-based workshops at six shelters.

Around 250 people enrolled on courses including photography, creative writing and the performing arts. Seventy per cent completed their course.

The project was led by a team of teachers who used unconventional approaches to attract the students, including providing lessons in the shelters' dining rooms.

The support of shelter workers was key to the success, said the report, Crossing the threshold: Successful learning provision for homeless people.

Those behind the scheme are urging others to use it as a template to attract homeless people into learning. They say it has fostered better communication between the charities and the education system in central London, allowing rough-sleepers to progress to mainstream education.

The report says: "The Rolling Shelter Project illustrates what can be achieved by strong partnership between educators and those who work directly with homeless people.

"Using a learning programme that encompassed visual and performing arts, creative writing and information technology, the project shows how homeless people can be helped to explore their talents and regain their self-esteem, which are crucial building blocks for progression to a more settled way of life."

Jamie McCoy, 51, is a step closer to realising this aim. He beat a 20-year drug habit after getting involved in a creative writing workshop at a shelter run by the Salvation Army. A tutor asked him to write something. He returned with a poem entitled A Fix. He has since produced more than 100 poems and is writing a children a book.

After spending 18 months in a hostel, Mr McCoy is now settled in his own flat and attends six courses at the City Lit as well as doing work with writers' groups.

He said: "I've started to use my imagination and think about what I want to do with my life. This is the first time I've actually thought my life could be different.

"I feel like my brain is finally coming alive after all these years of being anaesthetised."

But, as the report points out, offering education to homeless people is not without its difficulties.

"Lives are often very chaotic and dominated by the constant struggle to get money and cope with addiction as well as with physical and mental health problems. It was therefore essential for teachers to operate in a flexible way."

Nonetheless, the programme of intensive workshops has sparked other initiatives. These include courses in a day centre for young people with mental health problems who are living in temporary accommodation. Other courses are held in hostels for the homeless.

Advice sessions have been organised in a Salvation Army hostel, providing information and practical skills for people moving on to more settled accommodation.

The report adds: "Tackling homelessness successfully requires more than putting a roof over people's heads. Learning has a key part to play in improving confidence, identifying opportunities for change and helping homeless and socially excluded people to stay off the streets."

'Crossing the Threshold: Successful Learning Provision for Homeless People'

by Helen Cameron, Wendy McKaig and Sue Taylor is published by the Learning and Skills Development Agency and the City Literary Institute

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