AFTER spending hours on the cold and wet streets of Stockton, I couldn’t bear it any longer. My clothes were wet, I was shivering and even the most sheltered of doorways did nothing to protect me from the elements.
When sleeping rough becomes too much, there are few options for Teesside’s young homeless. The majority of adults will end up in hostels or B&B style accommodation but these often volatile environments are not considered to be suitable for youngsters.
Nightstop Teesside offers emergency accommodation to homeless 16 to 25-year-olds. The charity is the only service of its kind available in the area and if it cannot find more funding, it will close within months.
Following time spent on the streets, I spent a night in their care. The contrast between the two experiences is striking. That the area’s young homeless could soon be without the service is a devastating thought.
Cold, wet, bored and exhausted, the prospect of a warm bed for the night after hours on the street is one that fills me with relief. I’m sent to a rural cottage near Hartlepool where one of the charity’s hosts is waiting to welcome me. It’s only as I drive down a dark dirt track that I realise how much courage the whole process requires – both from vulnerable young people who find themselves with no option other than to throw themselves on another’s mercy and trust they will come to no harm, and from hosts who open their home to strangers. It's a giant leap of faith in both directions.
Nightstop Teesside manager Jane Cavana says: “Our hosts are fantastic. To open their homes up to complete strangers is an amazing thing to do. It makes a big difference to young people, who often come from broken homes believing nobody is going to care about them. Coming to a host and realising complete strangers do care gives them motivation and helps their self esteem.”
Before a young person is sent to one of the charity’s hosts, background checks are done. Criminal histories are checked – shoplifting is fine as it’s often the result of trying to obtain food, but house burglaries, sexual and violent offences will see you turned away. I arrive at Di Hedley’s home late in the evening. She makes her home available seven days a week and can be asked at a moment’s notice to accommodate a young person. It is a role the ex-special needs teacher and fosterer describes as “tailor-made” for her.
She offers me a hot meal and makes small talk over a cup of tea. Di doesn’t know I’m a journalist and I’m nervous, expecting to be bombarded with questions about my situation. The questions never come.
The next morning, when I come clean about being a journalist, she tells me that she prefers to let people react to the situation in their own way. Some, she says, will share their stories almost immediately – others will not engage in conversation with her at all.
After tea, Di shows me around her spotless home and to my room, equipped with Sky TV, DVDs, books and CDs. Next to my bed I find a towel and toiletries that are mine to keep.
“This is often the one time these kids are settled and it is an opportunity to set an example and try to improve their lot in life. Even just seeing how clean I keep my house, they take that on board. Some haven’t been taught how to look after themselves and this is a chance to help them.”
Di’s house also reflects the potential darker side to the Nightstop experience. There are locks on most doors. “The first thing you learn doing this is that not everyone is grateful. People can treat your house like a hotel and some will steal from you. I leave the front door accessible so they always have an exit but I will often lock the other rooms as I’ve had things taken.
“It can sometimes be scary. I’m living here alone, we’re quite out of the way and I occasionally wonder what could happen in the time it would take for police to get here.”
Despite this, Di continues to offer her home to young people as she believes Nightstop offers a crucial service. “There is nowhere else for these people to turn. Some come straight from the care system where they have had everything done for them. They are suddenly cast out into the wilderness with no idea how to budget or how to look after themselves.
“Nightstop is geared towards getting them into a safe place and giving them advice on housing and benefits and the like – there is no other system like it. People are going to have nowhere to turn and are going to wind up on the streets or being picked up by police. Crime rates will increase as they will be forced to steal to survive. Nightstop’s closure will set a precedent. People who need help are not going to be able to find it.”
After breakfast, I leave Di’s house and head back to my own, well rested and more thankful than I’ve ever been to have a permanent roof over my head. That there are people like Di out there, working for nothing and taking risks on behalf of some of the most vulnerable – and troubled – members of society, humbles me. That a charity like Nightstop could close at a time when homelessness figures are rocketing leaves me baffled and angry.
With the number of rough sleepers in England rocketing by 23% in a year and a rise in the number of young homeless, charities like Nightstop are invaluable to the community. To donate to them, text BEDS41 £... to 70070.