First person: Paula is the reason I come to work each day

David Harris works with homeless teenagers who are looked after by volunteers at the innovative, Hertfordshire-based Crashpad Mediation Project. He describes the rewards for the young people, the volunteers - and himself.

Paula can't remember exactly when the relationship with her mum started to go wrong, but matters came to a head after she left school at 16. She started to stay out late and sometimes missed the last bus home, so she had to stay with friends. This always led to a row when she came home. Where had she been? Where did she stay? And why didn't she phone?

The occasional night away from home began to spread to midweek as well as weekends. After one argument, Paula's mum said she had to toe the line or get out - so Paula left, saying she was not coming back.

In the cold light of day, Paula wasn't sure she had done the right thing.

But there was no way she was going to go crawling back. Paula's mum felt she had bent over backwards and that enough was enough. Paula had no problem finding somewhere to stay for the first couple of nights - her mates' families were used to her stopping for the odd night. But she couldn't stay longer.

As her options reduced, Paula's situation became like that of dozens of other young people in Hertfordshire - staying with friends when possible and, when all else failed, resorting to places that were uncomfortable, cold or unsafe.

I have seen many young people like Paula in my time at Hertfordshire Nightstop: Crashpad Mediation Project. For many, the need is not for immediate long-term housing or hostels, but for time to take stock in a safe environment.

Even a few days can make a difference.

That's where we try to help. Crashpad finds overnight accommodation for young people in the homes of ordinary people who volunteer.

When a young person is referred to us, we carry out a risk assessment and then place them in the home of a trained and approved volunteer for a maximum of three weeks. This stay offers breathing space for them to look at what has gone wrong and to explore longer-term options. During their stay, young people can work with mediators to help them and their families find ways of dealing with their problems.

When we get a referral, I often think "what a life he's had, and he's only 16". But within two weeks, after having had some time to reflect, they often resemble new people and have an increased sense of hope. We're part of that enlightenment - that's what makes me come to work each day.

I think this motivates the volunteers too. Recently, we had a host who is really into gardening and growing vegetables. She cooked macaroni cheese and broccoli for the young person staying with her and was amazed when he asked what broccoli was - he'd never had it. The idea that you could grow food rather than buy it from a supermarket was a revelation to him.

Opening that world up to him was an amazing experience for the volunteer.

We have just had a review day, and it was great to hear volunteers talking about their positive experiences of helping local young people.They are all quite different - there are single people, couples, families, younger and older people, those in paid work and those who work from home. But the one thing they all have in common is a desire to give youngsters in the county a safe break and a new start. Many are apprehensive at first, but with training and support they find it satisfying to be part of something that makes a difference to vulnerable people.

The scheme has now been running for two years, and the results speak for themselves. For the 240 young people we work with each year, and their families, the project improves relations. After leaving Crashpad, most of the young people move on to more stable and suitable situations. More than one in 10 are able to return to their family homes.

The scheme is a partnership funded by eight of Hertfordshire's 10 local housing authorities, the county council and Connexions Hertfordshire.

From their perspective, the project assists in the prevention of youth homelessness. It costs £800 to put a young person through the scheme, but the value of the project is immeasurable for the partners, the young people and their families.

No one would pretend that this kind of service is right for every young person facing housing difficulties. With careful selection, however, even a few days can make a difference to the futures of young people.

- David Harris is support and development officer at Hertfordshire Nightstop: Crashpad Mediation Project. The scheme is part of Herts Young Homeless Group and is linked to Nightstop UK. See www.hyhg.org and www.nightstop-uk.org.

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