I was in London recently and passed the old night shelter in Dean Street in Soho where I did voluntary work with young homeless people in the1990s. Here is an article I wrote 10 years ago about my experiences. Centrepoint remains the country’s leading national charity tackling youth homelessness. Its founder Ken Leech, who I met many times, died in 2015.
Homeless Young People by Declan Henry
There are on average 750 young people ‘homeless’ on the streets of London this winter; children who have fled home because of domestic violence, alcohol and drug-abusing parents, neglect, squalor or sexual abuse. Amidst the bustle of people dashing around shops or rushing to restaurants and theatres, these young people will largely go unnoticed. For them, life in the freezing cold is a better alternative than returning home to violent and uncaring parents, the ‘feeling of having to get away’ too powerful to make them want to turn back.
The charity Centrepoint was set up by Reverend Ken Leech, the Human Rights’ activist and humanitarian, in 1969. It offers young people a temporary safe place to live, providing them with a warm bed, shower facilities and hot food – basic needs that we take for granted but things they may not have experienced for a long time, or in some cases never at all. Equally as important, they will receive vital emotional support and can begin to tackle the problems that lead them to becoming homeless. They can learn to trust people again after much rejection, and can develop self respect and the skills they need to continue into the future.
When I appeared on the TV show A Little Bit of Ireland last year, Richard O’Brien spoke to me about my career in social work. I briefly mentioned my current work with young offenders. The start of my career, however, began on a wet Sunday afternoon one January during the early nineties. I attended a meeting at St. James’s Church in Piccadilly on the subject of homelessness. Here I met Robin Miller, West End writer and humanitarian, who later became a good friend. Robin recommended I did some voluntary work with Centrepoint. He put me in touch with Ken Leech, who I met on several occasions and I was impressed by his passion to tackle the problem of youth homelessness. Princess Diana became Centrepoint’s patron and remained in that position until her death in 1997. I remember attending the Annual General Meeting (AGM) some months before the Princess’s death and listening when she spoke passionately about helping highlight the plight of young homeless people. I also listened to Tony Blair at a subsequent AGM espousing his desire to end poverty and homelessness. A lot of time has passed since 1969 when Centrepoint first opened its doors. It is sobering to think that 11 years have passed since the Princess died – and Tony Blair is busy enjoying the millions acquired since leaving office – but the need for Centrepoint is still in heavy demand. Society has not cleaned up the social problems that cause homelessness. Politicians come and go, policies chop and change with mistakes not only going unremedied but repeated, and abusive parents still get away with brutalising their children.
I volunteered every Friday night at one of Centrepoint’s night shelters over a period of two-and-a-half years. Arriving at the Soho project at 6.30pm together with five other volunteers and a full-time paid project worker, we prepared the centre for the arrival of eight young males and four females. Tasks included making beds and preparing a hot evening meal – meat and vegetables, along with a vegetarian option, and dessert. My colleagues and I used to sit down and eat dinner with the young people, often sharing in the news of their lives, or anything in general they wanted to talk about. The project purposely did not have a television set so that conversation between people could take place, but music played in the background. After we had washed up, we used to play board games – Monopoly and Scrabble (I became very competitive at Scrabble!). Lots of mugs of tea were dispensed throughout the evening. Bedtime for the young people was midnight, although some opted to go to bed earlier, and/or have a shower and wash their clothes. Volunteers slept between 12.30 and 7am in a room with bunk beds with much banter and joking taking place amongst us. I still remain in touch with some of the friends I made during this episode of my life. The shelter was manned throughout the night by the project worker. The following morning we cooked breakfast for the young people – sausage, bacon and scrambled eggs (I defy anyone to make nicer scrambled eggs than mine).
Young people had to leave the project by 9am, equipped with bus tickets and luncheon vouchers and a list of instructions from the project worker to go, for example, to the homeless persons’ unit, job centre or benefits office. We volunteers completed our final tasks of the shift including mopping the floors, cleaning the toilets and making sure all the bed linen was washed for the next shift, before bidding farewell for another week.
London needs organisations like Centrepoint because young vulnerable people would otherwise perish. The streets contain many pitfalls – alcohol, drugs, prostitution and crime that lure vulnerable people into their vices. Government funding in social care will be drastically cut between 2011 and 2015. The problem of homelessness will return to scenes familiar with the Thatcher years – with rough sleepers sprinkled around shop doorways, parks and underpasses. A similar story can be told of the homeless in Ireland – both young and old, in Dublin and other large Irish cities. Whether the cause is from poor government or reckless bankers, the end result is the same – misery and despair. A lack of funding will mean fewer resources to an already well-stretched system. More generations will be lost to poverty. Society will pay heavily; all of us will be worse off by having to witness this human travesty. I remember Ken Leech once saying that when he set up Centrepoint he had only envisaged it being around for a short time, that was 42 years ago – and by the looks of things to come, despite decades of wealth and economic growth, its need will be more vital to help vulnerable young people than ever before. This is a sad thought early into 2011 – but as far as I’m concerned a realistic and accurate one.
Web link for Centrepoint: centrepoint.org.uk