A place to call home for one night: When families take in young homeless people it can be both rewarding and painful. Lesley Gerard hears from participants in 'Nightstop'

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He said his name was Darren, and claimed he was 16, but he was probably younger. One thing was certain - he was homeless and confused.

As he sat shivering in the living room of her three-storey house in the Harehills district of Leeds, Bernadette Quinn fried vegetarian burgers and nagged her young daughters to set the table. Mrs Quinn, a teacher, is a volunteer on Nightstop, a project launched six years ago by a branch of an arm of Barnardos to provide emergency accommodation for the homeless in the houses of ordinary people. There are now 20 such projects across the country and 30 in the pipeline. Most are set up by church groups, in response to the 'Faith in the City' campaign. The funding varies; the Leeds project receives 25 per cent from the Government and hosts are paid pounds 5 a night.

Darren was trading his pitch on the canal bank for a bed in her spare room. He can stay one night only, then he must move on - those are the rules. He had been beaten by his stepfather since he was five, then thrown out by his mother after he telephoned the police to report the abuse. It didn't surprise Mrs Quinn: 'Nothing shocks me any more.'

Darren left the next morning. No one knows what became of him, and Mrs Quinn is not about to start searching. She is not being heartless - just realistic. With a full-time job, two daughters, aged 11 and 12, and a relationship with her boyfriend, she has her priorities.

'I can give a homeless person a bed for the night, a survival guide, advice on benefits and bus fare. But I cannot solve their problems.'

Every month, up to seven homeless people share her home. But she knows there are limits. 'You cannot afford to get too involved - it would take over your life.'

What is the motivation for joining this scheme? 'Because I am a Christian. I care about the homeless and I have got a spare room. At least I am doing something. It is that simple, no hidden agenda.'

Every day in Leeds, one in seven children between the ages of 14 and 16 runs away from home, at the very least for one night, according to the Children's Society. The unlucky ones run straight into the arms of drug pushers and pimps. They can be found working in massage parlours and brothels. The lucky ones might end up with a Nightstop bed. Last year 182 people were given emergency accommodation on the scheme in Leeds, which targets 16- to 25-year-olds, although the age rule is often ignored. Every night six or seven families are on standby, out of the 63 registered on the project. Volunteer co-ordinators contact them by telephone or pager.

Hilary Willmer, Nightstop co-ordinator, insists it is easy to weed out the good applicants from the unsuitable. 'Many of the hosts are churchgoers, but they do not have to be. We do not want proselytism. People who come to Nightstop have been through enough, without someone badgering them about religion. If they ask, discuss it, if they don't, then don't.

'We look for relaxed, liberal-minded people. If volunteers approach us saying things like, 'Homeless people need to sort themselves out, they should stick with their parents,' then we know they are unsuitable.'

There is a golden rule at Nightstop which, understandably, is often broken: 'Do not get emotionally involved'. The one-night- only rule is there to prevent that from happening.

'If the host family breaks that, then they are going to learn the hard way. Trying to be parent and counsellor to a homeless person is courting disaster. When you fail everyone feels let down.

'They fall into this trap when they start out. Eventually, they either toughen up, become more objective, or drop out. Some realise this before the three-month training period ends,' adds Mrs Willmer.

For Veronica Holland, it began with a paragraph in the parish magazine: 'Can you help a homeless person?' She made a snap decision: 'I thought yes - that is a simple solution, a way to help.'

At Mrs Holland's comfortable four-bedroomed detached house in Horsforth, a suburb of Leeds, Darren would probably have got a hug whether he wanted one or not. Mrs Holland, to her cost, cannot help becoming involved with the people who stop over.

'I don't have any special skills, I'm an ordinary housewife, but I can offer friendship,' she insists.

She frequently flouts the one-night-only rule and she likes to take her nightstoppers to church at the weekend. 'But I don't force them.' However, there are some situations for which the three months' induction training can never be sufficient preparation.

Last year Mrs Holland found herself guarding an 18-year-old former child prostitute. The girl had police protection from her father, who had raped and tortured her since she was tiny. When she was eight he became her pimp and when she grew too old to command the fees, he sold her to an older man in Pakistan, in an arranged marriage. She then ran away.

'It was a terrible time for her, for me, for my own family. We kept all the doors locked and bolted. She dared not go out. Her father had two heavies staking out the post office, waiting to kidnap her if she cashed her Giro. I thought she was going to slash her wrists. She didn't, but she was close to it.'

After a week, social workers found her a place in a women's refuge.

'I hear she is rebuilding her life. It makes me angry when people ask why I put my own family under that kind of strain for a stranger. I did it because I care, because I know I helped her out of an intolerable situation.'

Mrs Holland and her husband, an engineer, realise they are exposing their eight-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter to the sharp end of life. 'They ought to know homeless people are not yobs, not filth, but ordinary people who have had a hard life.'

Last month Mrs Holland nearly gave up her voluntary work after receiving a call from Manchester CID informing her that they thought one of her former nightstoppers had been murdered. For a week - until the police found him living in Manchester - the guilt grew. The man, Richard, had been one of Mrs Holland's failures.

'We had treated him practically like a member of the family. When he didn't like his new flat we found him another near us.' But Richard never moved in; instead, he ran away.

'I was devastated when he left. I went around ranting 'How could you do this to me?' He'd lived with us, we'd helped him get furniture through our church. Later, I realised he had not been used to order in his life. We had put too much pressure on him. I learnt something from that experience. I learnt I am not perfect.'

Peter, a trained care assistant, has just been given the keys to a council flat, 10 minutes from the centre. Previously, he spent two weeks on Nightstop, staying with 10 different families. He became homeless after suffering a nervous breakdown.

'I was beaten up by my landlord, where I was renting a room. I am naive, I hadn't realised I was living in a drugs den until then. It cracked me up. I called work the next morning and quit.'

He had a choice: Nightstop, Shaftesbury House - the biggest hostel for the homeless in Leeds - or the streets.

'When I knocked on the door of the first house I was shaking with nerves. I kept thinking, they will look down on me. I've got a stigma attached to me now. A lady opened the door. She was a retired nurse, we had lots to chat about - it was all right after that.'

Wayne is 16 and had lived in children's homes for most of his life. He was impressed by Nightstop. 'One man had fine china and served our tea on it, it was so posh I couldn't believe it.'

Both Peter and Wayne are determined they will not be homeless again. However, 30 per cent of the people on the scheme return to the streets or to Nightstop itself.

'The council helps to find them flats, but they can feel very lonely and isolated, unable to cope,' observes Mrs Willmer.

The charity reports few thefts from host homes and it is rare for any householder to be threatened or attacked. They print a book of guidelines on how to cope if the homeless person arrives drunk or high on drugs.

'It may not be a solution, but given the choice between the railway bridge or Nightstop,' says Peter 'which would you choose?'

For more information contact Nightstop (0532) 305051.

(Photograph omitted)

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