In 1985, the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie published a report into urban deprivation which said, "In a competition for a scarce resource it is the poor who will lose. An increasing number are forced to resort to cheap lodging houses, or to large institutional hostels which date back to the Victorian period and are due for closure...Some sleep rough. Many are 'hidden homeless', continually moving between friends and relatives in search of something permanent."
In response, a group of churches in Yorkshire set up a scheme called Nightstop to help young people in crisis. They trained householders to provide a room, a hot meal and a listening ear to young people who would otherwise be sleeping rough. The scheme worked and twenty five years later Depaul Nightstop schemes run up and down the country, 40 in total with over 729 volunteer community hosts.
But 30% more people are sleeping rough on the streets of England than in 2010, according to government figures, and a significant number of these are young people aged 16-25. We are finding demand for services like Nightstop outstripping supply. This increase in rough sleeping is symptomatic of the desperation of those who are left behind, thrown out or for whom the system has failed. The situation is made worse for vulnerable young people, in particular, by a contracting economy changing attitudes and influencing who we are willing to help.
I recently found myself sitting on an Inquiry set up by the The Office of the Children's Commissioner into Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups, which identified 2409 victims of child sexual exploitation in a 14-month period and a further 16,500 very likely to have been or at risk of being victims. Children become vulnerable to exploitation for many reasons, but running away or being thrown out of home rank highest statistically and accounted for 58% of victims recorded in the Inquiry.
As a young youth worker in the early 90s I first met Matt, who was a young 21-year-old, in trouble with the law, thrown out by his parents, sofa surfing, sleeping rough and self harming. Although at first my attempts to support him were probably naïve at best, including offering him a room for the night, somehow between us we found a way through. I didn't know it in 1994 when I reached out to help Matt, who now has a home and a family, but I was trying to be a nightstop host without the support of those who know how to help.
With 25 million spare rooms in England and an estimated 80,000 young people who are homeless, with Nightstop we have at least one solution to keep young people safe. There simply isn't the money for hundreds of new hostels to cope with rising demand and in rural areas a hostel isn't a viable solution. Of course an end to youth homelessness and the exploitation of young people is the ultimate goal, but any permanent solution seems beyond our reach for now. Instead, a spare room gives a real and instant opportunity to provide a safety net for those in need and empowers local communities with a practical and direct response that can make a difference today.