For years Canongate Youth Project has helped young people to deal with homelessness. Now, thanks to Lottery funding, it is launching a new programme to equip teenagers with the practical skills to set up and maintain their own homes. Raymond Ross reports
Canongate Youth Project in Holyrood has been watching a crisis in youth homelessness within shouting distance of the new Scottish Parliament. Now they have some money - pound;240,000 from the National Lotteries Charities Board - and a project they hope will make a long term difference.
"In the last four or five years there has been a huge explosion in the number of young people coming to us for help," says Stuart Mair, CYP's project coordinator. "It's partly because successive government policies have resulted in young people finding themselves homeless, and because financial benefits are no longer available to families, who now see their obligation to children stopping at the age of 16. A lot of young people recognise and accept this. But an unemployed youngster at home receiving no benefits can become aimless or even despairing, because he no longer sees himself as part of the family unit."
Canongate's new programme, Preparation for Independent Living, will offer courses for young people between 15 and 20 likely to become homeless or just about to take up new tenancies. The programme will be launched on November 5.
The Canongate team, funded by the city council, already provide youth club services. They also work closely with local schools to provide support and to run groups on self-esteem, team building, anti-bullying strategies and substance misuse (see panel). They will offer the new project to teenagers in the course of their normal services. But school guidance staff can also refer directly.
The pioneering courses will provide information and build up practical skills. The hope in the first year is to increase the confidence and ability of at least 30 young people at least enough that they can maintain tenancies.
"We are talking about young people who are at the stage of moving on from family life but have difficulties that range from low self-esteem and low attainment to mental health problems or drug habits. Without positive intervention, they are being set up for failure," says Stuart Mair.
"Young people are often offered unsuitable tenancies because of the lack of range in public housing. It tends to be available only in areas that perhaps don't have good housing stock or good support mechanisms for youngsters with needs and difficulties of their own."
Holyrood is one of the designated "smaller areas" of urban regeneration in Scotland's capital. Over a quarter of young people there live in families with no earners. Well over half their families have no car, and a third are one parent families.
"Demands on our resources have increased in recent years," says Mr Mair. "There has been a reduction in social housing in the city as a whole. But there has been an increase in this area, and this has attracted young people with needs. They tend to concentrate here, because it's the biggest new social housing area in the city."
Preparation for Independent Living will target 14 and 15-year-olds as well as older people. This means they can try to prevent crises, not simply respond to them. "The whole reason for this project is that up to now we've been involved in crisis management," says Mr Mair. "Young people often use us at times of crisis, because of debt or impending homelessness - or when a mental health or drug problem hits them. This programme will enable us to offer a range of opportunities, mainly short taster courses at the start, to help them cope with independent living. We will let them select an individually tailored programme of personal development delivered in and around their own neighbourhoods."
The project will develop three distinct ranges of skills. They will begin with interpersonal skills like confidence building, assertiveness, self-worth, social skills, relationships and dealing with isolation.
Communication skills will cover dealing with neighbours, officials and correspondence, personal safety, welfare benefits and rights, as well as how to avoid your home becoming a "gang hut". These skills courses will be delivered by Canongate staff in partnership with other agencies such as social work, education, housing, health and police.
But the third range of practical skills - parenting, cooking, home maintenance, electrical problems, budgeting and home decoration - will call on experienced trades people to help.
"We are dealing with excluded young adults and see ourselves very much as a part of the move towards social inclusion, to preparing young people for citizenship and part of a lifelong learning strategy. But young people can only think about contributing to the community if they are living purposeful, settled lives," says Mr Mair. "Some of these youngsters have already accepted the self-fulfilling prophecy that they are going to fail from the outset. We have to counter that."
Courses will be tailored to the youngsters' needs. "A lot of these young people are held back by numeracy and literacy needs. We have links with Adult Basic Education and the Numbers Shop and we'll use them. But pressing needs like homelessness have to be dealt with first. Our experience shows that problems about numeracy and literacy will come to the fore when immediate crisis situations are resolved."
Preparation for Independent Living will target young people who have used the Canongate Youth Project over a number of years. These include people from its own Special Needs Skillseekers training programme, those whom local schools identify as "vulnerable", and those who have moved into the area recently.
"With regard to schools, our first target group will be Christmas leavers who have already sat their Standard grades and are really achieving very little in their final spell at school. But we'll also target others in Secondary 4 in conjunction with guidance and other departments in the schools."
Mr Mair also intends to use peer education, involving young people who have been thrown into tenancies at the age of 15 or 16 and are now in their late teens or early twenties. And he plans to offer basic IT training.
Youngsters could remain on the course for anything from a couple of months to two or three years. "We have to be flexible because of work, family or school commitments. We have to do what will realistically work," says Mr Mair.
Stuart Mair believes that the Canongate Youth Project can develop a successful model for adapting in other areas. The project will monitor their progress to show it makes a difference. One indicator will be young people moving in and holding onto a tenancy. Another will be teenagers seeing through the individual action plans they work out with the project.
"We would hope to be able to show how Preparation for Independent Living can develop into something else after our first three years. What exactly that is, we cannot say because it will be the young people and their needs which will set the agenda, so the targets will change," Stuart Mair says.
To mark the launch of Preparation for Independent Living, the Canongate Youth Project is holding an open day on November 5, 11.00am to 2.00pm at South Bridge Resource Centre, Infirmary Street, Edinburgh EH1 1LT, tel: 0131 556 93899719
Canongate Youth Project has done group work programmes in schools since 1980. Last year CYP staff ran nine different programmes in three local secondaries - St Thomas of Aquin's, Boroughmuir High School and Drummond Community High School - and in two primaries, Royal Mile and Preston Street.
Secondary groups focussed on behavioural issues, self-esteem, team building and substance misuse. Two school leavers' groups, mostly Christmas leavers who had already sat their Standard grades, were involved in workplace and college visits to prepare for life after school.
Other preparation includes training in telephone techniques, writing application forms and curriculum vitae.
A multi-cultural group of S2-3 pupils at Drummond looked at issues of ethnicity. As a result the Muslim pupils among them were able to establish a place for prayer in the school.
Transition programmes for three P7 classes helped them prepare for secondary school. CYP also provided individual support to students from secondaries, primaries and special needs schools.
Project staff are involved in school liaison groups, school boards and an anti-bullying working party as well as contributing to the planning of a new support base for students in one secondary.
Out of 52 referrals of young people to CYP for 1998-99, 28 were male and 24 female. Nineteen referred themselves. The others were referred by schools, social workers and parents.
The principal areas of concern were behavioural problems at school, followed closely by a general "at risk" category, behavioural problems in the community, family problems and offending. Sexual abuse, physical abuse and bullying did not feature prominently. Housing and drug abuse were significant, but not the highest areas of concern.