A room of one's own

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The World YWCA celebrates its centenary this month. It has 100 hostels, but what are they for? Esther Oxford visits one near Leeds where young women learn to take control of their lives

Most people walk by the YWCA hostel outside Leeds thinking it is a row of pretty turn-of-the-century cottages. There are none of the usual backpackers slouching in, a copy of the Rough Guide to Europe on $40 a Day in hand as there sometimes are in London's YWCAs, those urban institutions that everyone seems to know, but aren't quite sure about: what are they? What are they there for?

But this isn't a row of cottages. It is a shell; hollowed out, then divided into eight rooms and communal facilities for disturbed teenagers. Dotted around on tables and chairs are packets of biscuits. A girl sits doing a giant jigsaw puzzle. "Sit down," she says, patting the seat beside her.

Each of the eight teenagers who live in the hostel have a horror story to tell. Tales of the nightmare city, if you will: rape, molestation, poverty, broken homes. "Most of our young women come from disadvantaged backgrounds ... some have had terrible experiences," says Jenny Cooper, president of the YWCA. But the girls are not looking for sympathy. Asked to talk about themselves, they rebel: "This feels like the bloomin' Spanish inquisition."

Instead they talk about the future - about who they are going to be, how they are going to get there. Sylvia, 16, and Jane, 17, are particularly excited. After a year in the hostel, tonight they move outinto the two- bedroomed flat next door. There they will learn to live alone - with all the insecurities that independence brings.

The seven housing support workers are proud that the girls feel bold enough to move on. Both girls were wrecks when they arrived a year ago. Now they laugh and talk about how they have rediscovered their "old" personalities. The YWCA, they say, has given them back happiness. The YWCA has helped them through the roughest of patches at a time when no one else was able or ready or willing to help.

This month the World YWCA celebrates its 100th anniversary. One hundred years of "helping young women to take control of their lives", says Jenny Cooper. Nationally, the YWCA runs 100 hostels and 40 youth and community projects for more than 100,000 beneficiaries each year. Internationally, the organisation helps women in 90 different countries.

The YWCA was originally set up for Florence Nightingale's nurses waiting to sail to the Crimea, back in 1855. In the first half of this century their work was mostly with refugees, and contradictorily, nice middle- class girls taking their first steps into the big, bad world, but still needing a sense of community and safety. Now, single mothers and homeless young women are the priority. "Our job is to work out what the needs of the day are and provide for them," says Mrs Cooper. If they are not single mothers or homeless, they are otherwise disadvantaged: "Many of our residents have witnessed a family breakdown. Others have had inadequate parenting or have low self-esteem."

The residents at Middleton are particularly "needy". "Physical abuse, bullying, rape, alcoholism ... you name it, we've experienced it," Jane says. Staff are on hand to offer workshops, one-to-one counselling sessions and frequent motherly chats, 24 hours a day. Their selflessness amazes the teen-agers. "I'd never work as a day supervisor," says Jane. "They work their guts out."

The girls, who come from cities all over Britain, say the supervisors are like parents: "They make us keep strict rules: no alcohol, no boys either. We have to be in by midnight." The girls moan - they more than occasionally miss the neon lights and humming sounds of the busy night outside - but nearly all choose to stay. Most have missed a caring upbringing and thrive on the "nesty" feel of the place.

Each resident has their own room; warm, light and furnished with Habitat- effect bed, desk and chairs. Humming in the corner of Jane's room is a fridge. Residents are responsible for feeding themselves. Separate fridges solve the problem of dishes going missing. The rest of the room is filled with the usual teenage stuff: hi-fi, television, Body Shop products, posters of pop groups. The mess and the sight of soft toy souvenirs reassures. The rent is £4.90 a week; food is paid from individual social security payments. The feel of the place is part girls'dormitory, part hotel, part home.

Not that everyone fits in. "About one in 20 leave," says Trudy Souter, project manager of the Middleton hostel. Most leave because they cannot accept the rules. Some come back.

Sylvia, a slight 16-year-old, says: "I might have been dead by now if it wasn't for the YWCA." Over the past couple of years she has slit her wrists and taken overdoses. At home, her parents took to watching her like hawks. But at the Middleton YWCA there is an understanding that staff will not enter a resident's room without permission, even if they are worried about the mental state of their "inmates". If you want help, come to us, is the stance. So far, it works. "I've decided I like living," Sylvia says.

Jane, a stoic 17-year-old, thought she was "special" when she first came to the YWCA. She thought she was the only one around who had been physically and mentally battered by her alcoholic mother, slept on the street and hidden in safe-houses since the age of 13. She found she wasn't. Now she plans to go to college, study social work, then use her own experiences to help other young women. "I know enough to work in a place like this. I know what it is all about," she says.

Tracey Robbins, 23, is a volunteer for the YWCA community project 10 minutes' walk up the road. She watches the two girls with undisguised fondness. She wasn't dissimilar when she first turned to the YWCA three years ago, an altogether too familiar victim of circumstance and creeping inner-city decay: "I was a depressed, newly divorced single mother living in a council house," she says. Now she is forceful and confident, with a new partner and lots of friends. "I've had to buy an answering machine."

She and a team of volunteers run the community centre - a Seventies shack, which is cold, run-down and reminiscent of a disinfected school. But her optimism is such that she hardly notices the surroundings. When she does, she makes changes. "We've just painted the ladies' loos bright pink," she says. "Come along and see."

The centre is for single mothers from the nearby housing estate, as well as casual droppers-in and young women from the hostel. Confidence-building classes take up a large amount of the weekly time-table. The emphasis is on taking control of your life.

Melanie Kulinski, 18, is one of Tracey's successes. She lives on Winthorpe estate and left home when she was 16. Since she became involved with the "Y-dub" she has become more confident. She now runs a football team for 12- to 17-year-old boys. "It stops them drinking cider and vandalising," she says. "They respect me. I tell them what's what. And the women at the YWCA listen to me ... they take a very positive approach to things."

Later on, upstairs with Tracey's child, they all sit round, sprawled over loose chairs and shabby furniture. Bits of conversation filter through. "Are you coming down to London for that show? ... Has that chap called you back? ... You know what you were saying on Monday night ... You should have been there ... I wish you had been there ..." It's an unexpected idyll in the heart of the big smoke.

"I've discovered sisterhood for the first time - and I love it," Tracey says, sincerely and unselfconsciously. The women make me feel special and needed." Tracey is now a YWCA-sponsored student. Her five-year-old daughter rushes into the room. The pair negotiate the break-up of last Sunday's Easter egg. Tracey says: "I would like my daughter to follow my example. To go to university like I am."

Three years ago, she couldn't have said that. Pre-YWCA, the most Tracey hoped for was "a job as a school secretary". She spells out her discovery: "Anyone can do anything ... I tell that to the young women who come here."

Mrs Cooper says providing women with "life skills" and "child care" so that they can complete their education will be the YWCA's goal over the next few years. Gone are the days when "ping-pong and sewing beads" were offered to young women in search of a purpose. Today women need to be equipped for singledom, for independence, for the big bad world outside the YWCA's ever-open doors. "Times have changed. We believe in partnership, not patronage," Mrs Cooper says. "They tell us what they need. We don't tell them what to do."