Off the streets and into studies

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
Rebecca Daniels looks at a training scheme run by The Big Issue in the South West tohelp homeless people back on to their feet.

Last year Tom was homeless and scraping a living by selling The Big Issue magazine and begging on the streets of Bath.

The 26-year-old was interested in horses and dreamt of becoming a farrier but did not know how to realise his ambitions. He had left school and home at 15 and had no qualifications.

But Tom has now passed an entrance exam for the Farriery Training Service, with distinction, and will soon embark on a four-year apprenticeship.

Tom is one of the success stories of The Big Issue South West's foundation training award, which was launched in Bristol and Bath as a pilot scheme in September 1994 and has now gone from strength to strength.

The scheme enables vendors to work towards a qualification that helps knock down the barriers discouraging homeless people from re-entering education or finding a job. Vendors work towards a level 3 foundation training award (FTA), equivalent to a level 1 national vocational qualification.

"What you thought about doing, and what you want to do, is within your reach," says Tom.

Vendors concentrate on improving their own learning and working with others. They also aim to achieve short and long-term goals - anything from registering with doctors and dentists to finding accommodation, gaining training to enter the job market and applying for college courses.

Participants build up a portfolio of their work, which is eventually sent away for accreditation by an approved awarding body.

Shirley Stewart-Jones, training co-ordinator at the South-west edition of The Big Issue, says: "What we are doing is showing homeless people that they have these skills and then helping to develop them. I see this as an opportunity for them to regain control.

"In itself, it is not an immediate leap into college, but it does demonstrate that it is possible to bridge the gap between mainstream educational opportunities and the homeless person."

Around 60 vendors have participated in FTAs since the scheme was launched in conjunction with the University of the West of England, the local training and enterprise council and Bath adult education service, which is also one of the funders.

The rest of the money comes from the Big Issue Foundation, the City of Bristol College and the Canning Trust in Bristol.

There are currently nine vendors on the FTA course, including 19-year-old Gabby from Somerset. She has received a grant from the Prince's Trust for driving lessons and is currently trying to find a home.

She is able to work on her CV on computers in The Big Issue office in Bath. Gabby wants to do a photography course at Bath College and also to try her hand as a glass- blower.

University graduates Sebastian, 25, and Franzisca, 23, who became Big Issue vendors in Bath after losing their jobs at a local art gallery, are on level 3 of the FTA.

They have applied to the Winston Churchill Trust for a travelling grant and are trying to find out more about teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) courses and journalism.

"It's good to have someone looking over you so you can get those things you have planned on doing done. You have somewhere to work and someone to talk to," says Sebastian.

"It's pointed us in lots of directions, to hear about courses and grants which we certainly wouldn't have heard about or been able to get together by ourselves.

"You do get very disillusioned by the kind of life you are leading. You end up losing a bit of faith in people. I felt I was getting nowhere but I got on the course and I'm able to pursue the things I want to."

Franzisca adds: "If you are homeless and don't do anything at all, people aren't going to help you. People come to recognise your face on the street and think, if that person isn't going to help themselves, I'm not going to help.

"When you tell people you are doing a Foundation Training Award course, people give you so much help. I told a guy I was interested in writing, and I ended up writing an article for a magazine for him."

The Big Issue is hoping to expand the scheme further in the South-west.

In London, the organisation runs JET - Jobs, Education and Training - which gives homeless people education and career guidance.

Other schemes to help homeless people include the Foyer movement, which has 58 projects across the country. The movement provides short-term housing for young people as well as training and guidance.

Capital Careers in London runs Off The Street, which helps homeless people with education guidance and training.

Sue Cara, associate director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, says that getting homeless people into further education is a huge challenge.

"They have really chaotic lifestyles so you have to cope with things like not turning up. They find it quite difficult because of their isolation to work in groups," she says.

"It is better if it can be done in conjunction with other parts of their lifestyle - linking it with housing and getting into employment is important. Problems are often not solved just by a bit of education and training."

She adds that NIACE hopes to find more money to develop the Big Issue approach. "We think homeless people are a very important client group. We would like to get more work, particularly with adult homeless people who seem to be less attended to than young people."

While many schemes are making good progress in helping the homeless there is still one hurdle left - other people's attitudes.

Tony Harvey, project worker for Shelter's Rough Sleeper Initiative in Bristol, says: "There are an awful lot of homeless people who want to look at further education and training.

"There is this misconception that they don't have any brain cells, but they are no different to anyone else in society.

"It's just that something has gone wrong and they lie outside, not inside the system. Many are very intelligent and do have aspirations for the future. "

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