Coming in from the cold

11th February 2000 at 00:00
The discovery of a 15-year-old girl frozen to death in Manchester last year has become a powerful focus for charities who work to help the young and homeless. Jerome Monahan reveals how these rough sleepers are being given the skills needed to get off the streets.

"OF THE 200 faces we see every day, 15 will be new to us," says Bill Williams of the London Connection - the largest agency for homeless people aged between 16 and 25 in the UK.

"Many of them have spent enough time out to adapt to street life - it takes about three weeks. After that, integrating them back into the mainstream can be a painful and prolonged business."

To this end the agency has developed The Connection Course, which offers clients training geared to their specific requirements. One in four of the London Connection's clients is dyslexic and many have had disrupted schooling.

In rooms above the centre's drop-in cafe, people study basic, key or core skills in literacy, numeracy, communication and IT. All the courses are home-grown and have national vocational qualification accreditation. "We know what chaotic lives some of these young people lead," explains Bill Williams. "Our training is geared to their inevitably 'onoff' engagement.' "

Mark Austin is 23. He was excluded from school aged 13, failed his GCSEs and left home following trouble with the police.

After time in prison, he became homeless. The London Connection helped him find accommo-

dation and then encouraged him to take one of its computing courses. "I have got a place at college now to study computer graphics," he explains. "'Things are looking up."

Mark is convinced that many young people have a very rose-tinted idea of homelessness.

He says: "I wish I had met someone like me when I was at school. I might have listened to advice t keep my head down. There's no glamour on the streets - you go down rapidly and lose confidence.

"It is dangerous - I have been woken by a kick in the face - some drunk lads having a laugh."

Across the country, agencies are helping young people turn their painful experiences of surviving sleeping rough by getting them to help others to grasp the realities of homelessness.

That the cause is crucial was underlined on November 17 when 15-year-old Simone Valentine was found unconscious lying wrapped in a blanket in a garden in Clayton, north Manchester.

She died 10 hours later at the city's Royal Infirmary. It had been a cold night.

"It is a disgrace that today a child can possibly freeze to death in the street," said Alistair Hay, the manager of the City Centre Project which offers advice and training to young homeless people in Manchester.

"Simone's story provided a powerful focus for our outreach day at Wilmslow high school in Cheshire, the first place to take up our peer-education course. The event had a big impact and now other schools across the North-west are calling on us."

The City Centre group has designed the Get Up and Go board game which is used to introduce students to the realities of homelessness.

Jamie Johnson, 26, helped invent the game. His own life has been dogged by school exclusions, self-harm and homelessness. "It is a fun way of raising crucial issues about the dangers that young people can face sleeping out," he says. "It also alerts them to the agency services that are available if they hit a crisis."

The Core Skills Training Pack is available from Bill Willams at The London Connection on 0207 766 5555. For details of the Get Up and Go Game or the City Centre Project's peer - education programme, contact Alistair Hay on 0161 228 76545

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