Homeless children: the work of Step in Nightstop

You’re 17 and have just had a big row with your mother’s new partner. It has become heated and they have chucked you out. Your grandmother is on holiday so you can’t stop there and, when you rang your aunt, she said she was not prepared to get involved.

The options are limited; it is probable you will end up sofa-surfing until your friends’ parents get fed up of having you around. If tempers are still high at home, then you might stand a chance of a hostel bed. Then again, you might not.

For young people who have hit hard times, the spiral into sleeping rough can happen quickly. Step in Nightstop, which can provide one to three nights’ emergency accommodation in a family environment to tide 16- to 25-year-olds over in a crisis.

The idea of giving temporarily homeless young people a safe place to sleep for the night began 20 years ago in Leeds in response to the Faith in the City report, says Nightstop UK manager Sue Trenerry.

“Faith groups were looking to see what practical things they could do to alleviate these kind of problems,” she explains.  People in Leeds began looking for family hosts that could put someone up in an emergency and try to catch them before a bad situation unravelled into something worse.”

Nightstop now operates in 47 towns and cities throughout the UK, and last year alone provided 2,500 nights of accommodation from about 4,500 referrals made by youth agencies and social services.

Having a distressed young person you have never met before turn up to stay for the night might seem risky for the family involved, but there are safeguards in place. Clients are risk-assessed, and Trenerry makes the point that Nightstop is not suitable for anyone with multiple problems, such as drug users or anyone with a history of aggression. Equally, hosts are policechecked, trained and have access to a 24-hour phoneline.

“It’s important that there’s no assumption that a young person can stay more than one night,” says Trenerry. In reality, it is a maximum of three nights with one host at a time, with that person’s agreement.

“In the day the young person will be out at Connexions, or perhaps at school, or hopefully getting mediation with their family,” she adds.

“It’s a breathing space, a safe place and it’s temporary. It also means they’re not becoming alienated from living in a family situation as could happen if they went into a hostel.”

Seventeen-year-old Jimmy* from Preston, Lancashire, has used Nightstop several times. Now in supported lodgings and doing a construction course at college, was saved from sleeping rough over the past two years thanks to three families that welcomed him into their homes.

Originally kicked out of his family home, Jimmy stayed with friends, but then was told to move on. He recalls his first Nightstop experience: “At first, when you walk in, it’s a bit weird being in someone else’s front room, but I’m not a shy person. You get your own bedroom, you’re free to go out if you want, there’s toiletries, and they’ll wash your clothes and feed you.”

Given that hostels can be scary places where young people will come across adults with alcohol problems, drug dealers and people working as prostitutes, having the chance to stay with a family has clearly been a relief. “The council offered me a hostel place once, but it was smelly and I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel good in there,” Jimmy explains.

Victor and Irene Strange, both in their seventies, have had Jimmy to stay several times and, in total, have offered 246 nights of accommodation over the past year and a half.

“Do I get nervous? I might sound daft but, no, it doesn’t bother me,” says Irene, laughing. “They’re all vetted before they turn up. If they’ve got any washing, I’ll do it for them and make them a meal. Luckily we’ve not had many fussy eaters. It depends on them what they want to do for the evening. They might not want to watch television with us old fogeys! If they just want to go to their room, that’s fine.”

She doesn’t probe, she says, but is happy to listen if the young person wants to talk. “The occasional one does tell you what’s happened. One young man had a gambling problem. He was going on a course to help him stop, and I said I’d wring his neck if he didn’t complete it. And when he finished, he rang to tell me and came from Chorley to Preston to go to church with me.”

As well as a bed for the night and a listening ear, Trenerry believes Nightstop has wider benefits. “These are ordinary young people, not villains,” she says. “And it does prove to them that there are people in the community who care.”


● Be clear about the rules. Nightstop ensures young people know up front they can stay only one night at a time, and must tell the organisation if they would like to stay on a further night. This avoids hosts feeling pressured to offer accommodation if it doesn’t suit them.

● Make sure the young people are suitable. Cases of theft have been rare thanks to Nightstop’s vetting of the young people and checks to ensure they aren’t dealing with other issues such as drug use or criminal charges.

● Be clear about expectations. When recruiting hosts, Nightstop makes sure they know that the only requirement is to offer one night a month, and that they need only be at home from 6pm if a referral is made.

This article appeared in the 11 October issue under the headline “Sleepover havens”

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