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Somewhere to call their home

Teenagers can find themselves alone if family relations break down. Mary Hampshire on the lecturer who is helping young people through a lodging support scheme

WHEN Christa van Raalte's phone rang last Christmas Eve, the call was a request to take in a homeless teenager.

Ms van Raalte, 39, and her husband Stephen Kennedy, 40, a social worker, are the longest-serving members of the supported lodgings scheme. Run by North Tyneside charity, Churches Acting Together (CAT), it provides temporary housing for 16 to 21-year-olds within private homes.

The North Tyneside College lecturer has opened her home to nine teenage girls in the past four years.

"We give emotional and practical support but we are not foster parents," explains Ms van Raalte, head of media. "We provide stability and a sense of normality so they can return to education or find employment. But the young people learn independence and have their own space," adds the mother-of-three.

In the family's five-bedroom Victorian terrace in North Shields, Madelaine Cain, 18, gives a hand in the kitchen and jokes about her birthday night in Whitley Bay. She has asked Ms van Raalte to join her. "I'll be the old hag of the group, I'll have to bring a cardigan," she referring to the notorious nightclub strip where men wear T-shirts and women skimpy clothes despite the winter chill.

This time last year, Madelaine called a support agency for help. They passed her on to the supported lodgings scheme.

"I couldn't stand living with my mum anymore," says Madelaine, from North Shields, who spent Christmas Day at her dad's and New Year's Eve with Ms van Raalte and family.

"I'm not in touch with mum now," she says. "Since moving here I've grown up and got used to handling my freedom. I didn't do very well at school. I turned up once a week because of problems at home. " Madelaine, who wants a job in the travel industry, has completed a foundation course in office and retail skills. She is now on a 26-week training course with Tyneside Careers Service which covers life skills and interview technique. She also attends preparatory sessions at CAT which deal with practical things including managing money.

Approximately 70 young people are on the supported lodgings scheme, set up in 1997, which receives funding from North Tyneside Council. "We get lots of referrals at Christmas," says Lyndsay Yarde, project leader. "It's a very tense time of year and seems to highlight existing problems within families. Some young people have been through the care system. Others have conflict with parents.

"Bed and breakfast can be lonely and hostels house older people. There is little accommodation for 16 to 21-year-olds. Our householders are couples or single men and women. There's no limit on how long young people stay."

Brian Kaye, 19, who has been through the care system, is studying a BTEC in electronics full-time at North Tyneside College. He is taking maths GCSE and is the Student Union welfare officer.

A stable home life has helped him focus on education. "It's made a big difference to my life," says Brian, who has no GCSEs and an NVQ 1. "I realised I had to get more qualifications if I wanted a decent job but I wasn't able to concentrate until now."

He lives with a fire fighter who works shifts. "He likes having someone around to look after the house at night," says Brian. "The arrangement only works if the young people are prepared to do things for themselves like cook and clean."

Householders are screened and receive pound;65 a week. Ms van Raalte says:

"This scheme works for us because we've got a large house. Our kids have adapted well, and Madelaine sometimes baby sits.

"There is a lot of trust, but we are not the sort who fret about precious vases."

"The money comes in handy," says Mr Kennedy. "But when things go wrong you can feel like you're coming home to another job."

Ms van Raalte adds: "Madelaine is great to live with, but we've had a couple of girls who had to leave. They lost respect for us and left their room like a pigsty. But when the young women make something of their lives, we get a lot of satisfaction."

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