A foyer might be a hotel lobby to you and me, but to Andrew Sketton it means his own front door, a secure home, help with finding a job, and respite from family aggression.
Andrew, 18, is proud of his first-floor flat, part of a complex of 14. His window looks out over a picture-book, quintessentially English landscape: a meadow leading down to the River Derwent in the rolling countryside that surrounds Malton, a north Yorkshire market town. But the setting is not what impresses him most about the place. He appreciates above all that there he is able to live independently, hold down a job, and pay his way.
Andrew Sketton was one of the first residents to move into the Ryedale foyer, which was built nine months ago by the YMCA. Foyers are a means of providing disadvantaged young people aged 16 to 25 with both life and work skills, on the understanding that the former are unlikely to function properly without the latter. They provide both accommodation and access to training and employment. But you could be forgiven for not knowing about them. They were developed in France, and although their numbers have grown rapidly since they were introduced into this country in 1994, there are still relatively few of them (just over 50), and their successes have gone largely unnoticed. Until now.
A change of government has thrust foyers into the limelight, as Labour has decided they should play a key role in its Welfare to Work programme highlighted in last week's Budget. On the Wednesday after the General Election, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, visited the Camberwell foyer in south London, along with David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, and Andrew Smith, the employment minister. The team was impressed by what it saw, and ministers have been visiting foyers up and down the country ever since.
Andrew Sketton lived with his family in Malton, but his brother was constantly in trouble with the police, his father was a heavy drinker and often violent, he argued with his mum and played truant from school, which he left without qualifications. ("The last year was a waste of time," he says.)
Although Andrew desperately wanted to work, home life got in the way. He says: "I got on to a mechanics course in Scarborough and a local garage gave me some training. I was keen do it, but with everything at home my mind wasn't on the job. It was making me depressed. I went to my doctor and told him about my problems."
His GP put Andrew in touch with the foyer, he moved in, and gradually things began to look up. Most foyers have support workers to help residents look for work or training, make contact with local job centres, employers and colleges, improve life skills, and draw up self-developme nt plans. Indeed, a commitment to this programme is one of the conditions of being given accommodation.
Jo Kirkbride, one of the Ryedale foyer support workers, helped Andrew find a job with a local castings firm, and some evenings he also works behind a bar. Now that his home life is more stable he feels he can cope with the demands of earning a living. He still gets down, but Jo and her co-worker Dave Walker, who specialises in drugs, health and alcohol issues, are on hand to talk to him. When Andrew moved in, the foyer lent him some pots and pans until he could afford his own, and Jo has lent him cookery books (he has progressed from fry-ups to spaghetti bolognese). He uses the foyer Hoover and launderette and is careful to make sure his room is tidy whenever Jo visits him.
A foyer is an ideal halfway house to independent living. For young people reliant on infrequent public transport in some of the remote rural areas around Malton, living in the foyer opens up opportunities for work and training not previously accessible. For some it means an end to "sofa-hopping" - sleeping on people's floors, staying with the families of friends, constantly on the move.
Jo Kirkbride says: "You don't find young people here sleeping on the streets, though they might have spent one or two nights in a barn. But when they're sofa-hopping, relationships with the people they are staying with tend to break down. They don't have the security to take a proper look at what they are doing with their lives and to plan for the future.
"Here we give them a chance to find out and make mistakes, and we support them through it. It is what you would do for your own children, but that hasn't happened to these young people."
The foyer works closely with the Job Centre and the careers service, discusses work possibilities with residents, and teaches them how to draw up CVs. "The rule is that they keep regular contact with us," says Jo Kirkbride. "We prepare them for interviews and go with them if they want us. I've got them to an interview and they've said 'I can't go in', and I say 'Yes, you can'. It's all about confidence-building."
One girl who was studying for a GNVQ health and social care course at Scarboroug h College, and funding her studies by working in the local supermarket, had been sleeping on a friend's floor. "Things were breaking down in her life," says Jo. "Now she's here she's more likely to continue with her studies."
There is no shortage of accommodation in Sheffield's Norfolk Park. Located on the supertram route that winds up the hill behind the city's railway station, its tower blocks dominate the skyline. It's an area where most families have a single parent, where male unemployment is around 28 per cent, and where drug abuse and family breakdown are rife.
In the middle of all this a spanking new foyer has emerged, a #163;1.5 million conversion of an empty old people's home carried out by the Northern Counties Housing Association. The Sheffield foyer has rooms for 60 residents at rent of #163;67 a week, all with their own kitchens and bathrooms. There is an IT suite, seminar and training rooms (which host courses run by the local college), a careers library, and catering facilities.
Paul Hulley, manager of the foyer, says: "It's not difficult for young people in Norfolk Park to gain a tenancy in a tower block, but after a few days the keys are returned. They have a party and that's it. They don't have the life and social skills to go with it. Here we give them the skills to manage a tenancy and live on a budget.
"We don't tend to take people straight off the streets, though some of them are; they come through referral or word of mouth. They are the kind of young people who sat at the back of the class in school and achieved very little, who were launched into a world they were not prepared for and which was not prepared to be prepared for them.
"Employers want their employees to turn up on time and dress appropriately and know how to deal with people. We support them in all those skills. Employers like foyers because they are run on the principle of self-help. We are about citizenship, about taking charge of one's life. "
Hilary Armstrong, the housing minister, has visited the Sheffield foyer and it is soon to be formally opened by David Blunkett, one of the city's MPs. But already, after just eight weeks, it is home to the likes of 17-year-old Mark Taylor, 16-year-old Kelly Hibberd, and Richard Thomas, 18.
Mark left school two years ago without qualifications and was subsequently "chucked out" by his stepfather. Depressed and lacking confidence, he was brought to the foyer by his mother who hoped it might give him the support he needed to take the first steps towards independent living. Kelly had walked out of school and couldn't get on with her mother.Richard, a barman, wanted to move into pub management but felt too constrained by his home life to do anything about fulfilling his ambition.
Now Mark is taking a basic literacy and numeracy course at the foyer; Kelly is looking to take up full-time training in catering and is back in regular contact with her mum; and Richard works 32 hours a week in a pub and attends a training course in pub-management in Doncaster. "If I hadn't been here I wouldn't have been able to cope in a flat," says Richard. "I wouldn't have had the confidence to strike out on my own."
Not all people who become foyer residents are allowed to stay. In addition to agreeing to seek work or training, and to adopt a self-development plan which is regularly reviewed, they must observe certain conditions of behaviour. "Already we've chucked people out," says Paul Hulley. "One resident threatened another with a knife; it was a serious incident." Such people are put on 28 days' probation, and are shown the door if their behaviour does not improve. Aggression, racism and sexism are not tolerated. The foyer hopes to introduce a peer mentoring scheme.
A report published by Annabel Jackson Associates last year found that while 70 per cent of foyer residents nationally were unemployed when they moved in, by the end of their stay - on average six months to two years - 80 per cent "had improved their lives" and slightly more than half had found jobs.
All foyers operate as autonomous projects and their funding, inevitably, is complicated due to the number of government departments and other agencies that have to be involved. The YMCA and some housing associations have led the way on the capital investment side, and running costs have been met by imaginative bids to the Single Regeneration Budget, the Supported Housing Management Grant and the National Lottery, among others. But funding is the key problem confronting the movement as it seeks faster growth. However, it does at least have a sympathetic government on its side. As Paul Hulley says: "We managed to expand under a radically unhelpful Tory government. It's got to be easier from now on."
What they are and how they work
* Foyers help disadvantaged young people aged 16-25 who are homeless or in need of housing to achieve the transition from dependence to independence. They offer integrated access to accommodation, training and job-searching facilities.Young people are required to make a formal commitment to use the foyer's facilities and community resources to make the transition to independence.
* There are 52 foyers in Britain. Each one is autonomous, with its own sources of income. The average cost of building a foyer is #163;30,000-50,000 per bed.
* The Sheffield centre cost #163;2 million to set up. It has projected annual costs of #163;338,540, around half of which will be met by income from rents. Grants from the Supported Housing Management Grant, the European Social Fund and the Single Regeneration Budget total #163;142, 000 (42 per cent of costs).
For further information contact: The Foyer Federation, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL. Tel: 0171 377 9789