When Zubairi Sentongo knocked on David and Merrill Nelson's door, he carried his few belongings inside black bin liners. He was 17, and his arrival at the suburban semi in Wolverhampton over a year ago marked a new stage in a perilous journey from an impoverished life in Uganda. Merrill, a retired nurse who was born in Jamaica, would come to love the boy like one of her own, but when she first met him, she could see she had work to do.
"I sat him down and I say to him, black bags are for rubbish, you're not rubbish – don't use them again," she recalls. "And I send David with him to get some suitcases. He wore these shoes that were leaking. I say to him, you need new shoes. I showed him how to hang up his clothes, how to eat well. And I say to him, this is your home for as long as you want. You stay here and when you're ready, you go."
The Nelsons are one of hundreds of families who open the doors of their homes to vulnerable young people caught between childhood and adulthood. Often too old for other kinds of care, yet too young and troubled to survive independently in social or temporary housing such as bedsits, they rely on strangers to provide shelter and emotional support at a critical time in their lives. Many come from broken families, the streets, or brushes with crime or substance abuse.
Dozens of local authorities and charities match hosts with young people under these "supported lodgings" schemes, sometimes for weeks, sometimes months. As a challenging economy makes life especially tough for those breaking into adulthood, leading to rising numbers of young homeless people, demand for families who can help is growing fast. Yet, at the same time, the Government's controversial welfare reforms are creating instability in the system.
Four months after he left his Wolverhampton sanctuary, where he'd lived for almost half a year, a new man, Zubairi, 18, has returned for the first time to tell his story and thank the Nelsons for what they have done. Joining them are Stanley Ifamene and Neville McIntosh, who work on the ground for the YMCA. The charity supports almost 250 young people in its supported-lodging schemes, up from around 150 two years ago, and offers 10,000 beds a night in all types of accommodation, including hostels.
Zubairi was born in Kampala to a poor family and never knew his father. When he was four, his mother emigrated to London and found work in an industrial bakery, sending what little money she could to her son and his older siblings. "My childhood was not perfect, not even close to perfect," Zubairi says. "We could never afford to go to school, the only thing we could do was hang around and try to look for food. And when we found food, we'd go to sleep."
It took years for Zubairi's mother to secure the paperwork for him to join her in London. He arrived in 2011, aged 15. "When I got here, I looked at her and thought, this is the lady that always spoke to me, this is the lady that gave birth to me." The only tear Zubairi sheds while recounting his youth now emerges, prompting David to go in search of a tissue. "It was very difficult," he explains. "Mum wanted me to go find a job, but I had a dream. I wanted to be an engineer and in England I had the opportunity to go to school."
Not long after Zubairi's arrival, the family moved to Wolverhampton. He was determined to fulfil his ambition, while his mother remained desperate only to pay the bills. He began working part-time but it became impossible to juggle school and employment, and relations at home became strained. "She didn't necessarily kick me out, but I could see where it was heading," Zubairi recalls. "I kept seeing the landlord knocking on the door. She said she was going to find a smaller place and that I wouldn't have a bedroom."
More than 80,000 young people experience homelessness each year, a figure that has risen by 57 per cent since the start of the financial crisis, according to Citizens Advice. The leading cause is family breakdown. "Some parents literally can't afford to keep their children at the moment," Neville McIntosh says. He was born in Wolverhampton and is now a floating support worker for YMCA's Black Country Group. "Welfare reform has a massive amount to do with it," he adds, singling out harsh new penalties for benefits claimants, the bedroom tax and the household benefits cap.
"Sometimes the parents will call back and say, 'how is my daughter or son doing?'" Stanley Ifamene adds. He matches supported-lodgings hosts with young people, providing further support throughout each placement. "They will say, 'it's not that I don't like my child, but it's the circumstances'. They have just told them, 'I can't accommodate you any more'."
Zubairi had no choice but to move out of his mother's flat early last year. A period of "invisible" homelessness followed, on friends' sofas. Then came nights in a Wolverhampton park, where life began to feel cruelly familiar. "I used to try to keep myself busy to get to the end of the day and it was hard to find food again," he says. "I encouraged my friends to stay out late. It was warmer with people around but when they leave, you notice how cold it is."
By now, despite his patchy schooling, Zubairi had begun studying for a BTEC diploma in engineering. A referral by the Wolverhampton branch of the Connexions advice centre then led him to the YMCA. First, the charity paired him with a host under the "night stop" scheme, a shorter-term solution that offers thousands of young people safe shelter at night only, often in an emergency. Simonita Campbell, too, welcomed Zubairi as a son, and soon applied to care for him more fully under the supported-lodgings scheme. "She used to trust me and motivate me," he says. "Every day I would look forward to showing her what I'd made at college, and every morning I didn't want her to wake up and find me in bed."
But Simonita, who was in her early 50s, had been experiencing pains in her ribs. One day, she phoned Zubairi from hospital. "She told me 'they're letting me die here'," he says. "Every single day I went down there and saw her losing her strength." Within four weeks, just over six months after Zubairi had arrived in her home, Simonita had died of cancer. Zubairi, who describes her as his best friend, was homeless again – and grief-stricken.
Ifamene had to find a replacement host, something that is becoming increasingly difficult as demand soars. The YMCA's Black Country group has 75 hosts, each of whom must undergo 10 hours of training as well as child protection checks, but says it will need more than 100 hosts in this region alone by the end of the year. Hosts currently receive any benefits due to their young charges, as well as a nominal fee of £22 a week to go towards utilities and food. Welfare reform is making the struggle worse, the charity adds, leading to increases in evictions and homelessness and greater demand, just as cash-strapped local authorities also cut funding to vital projects across the country.
Alongside these struggles, the YMCA has also been campaigning in Westminster for an exemption to a measure, under the new Universal Credit system, that would mean housing benefits would be paid directly to vulnerable young people rather than to their carers. "It could be truly disastrous," McIntosh warns. "A lot of these people haven't got the support to manage their finances. You have to think about people with drug habits."
Young people, including Zubairi, agree, according to the YMCA's own surveys, and while the Government has offered some assurance that an exemption will apply, there remains concern it will not cover those in supported lodgings. "There's also a fear that the new definition has the potential to be interpreted by local authorities in different ways," adds Richard Hughes, policy and research officer at YMCA England.
Care groups are already observing big local variations in the way welfare reform is working. Foster parents who receive housing benefits are exempt from the controversial bedroom tax, for example, but only if they have one foster child. For those with, say, two foster children in two bedrooms (the law requires separate rooms), the additional child is effectively invisible, and the parent is penalised for having that "spare" room. "The answer is to apply continually for discretionary payments with no guarantee," says Dame Anne Begg, the Labour MP and Chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee. "It does seem ridiculous to put this extra bureaucratic level on people who are able to support vulnerable children."
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions says that Universal Credit "will break down a major barrier that stops people moving into work". It adds: "We know that starting to pay rent will be a cultural change for some people. That is why we have ensured strong protection and support is in place for both tenants and landlords." On the subject of foster care, the Department insists that: "The important work that foster carers do is clearly recognised in the benefits system."
At the Nelson's home, Zubairi found the perfect place to grieve as well as to grow. "I loved him straight away," says Merrill, 63, a retired nurse. "He loves to touch and hug, so he's right up my street. I get permission from him and say, "can I give you a hug?" because I could see the sadness in him. So we go to the kitchen, we talk about his feelings and I say, listen, I'm here for you. I'll be like your grandma."
"I knew straight away it was a warm household," Zubairi says. "The way that they spoke was calm, and I just needed a calm place." He thrived under the Nelson's firm but loving guidance, as well as that of their own five children. It was when they had grown up and left home that the couple decided that they had to give something back. Seventeen years on, they have fostered and supported almost 30 young people in their home, including those with signs of physical abuse. Liam arrived as a baby with an iron-shaped burn on his stomach. Now six, he is part of the family after Merrill's daughter adopted him.
Perhaps too old for the heavy lifting a toddler requires – David, a retired youth worker, is 70 – the Nelsons now host older children under the supported-lodging schemes. Just before Christmas, Zubairi was ready to take his new suitcases to a shared flat in Wolverhampton, still supported by the YMCA. "I was so sad when he left," Merrill says. He has a stronger relationship with his mother, and continues to excel at college, recently completing a work placement with a motor engineering firm in Germany. He is also an ambassador for YMCA and proudly reveals a YMCA T-shirt for The Independent's photographer.
"I think I'm a motivated young individual and I've been inspired by so many people that I wish to inspire a few other people," he says. "David has told me stories about how you can be a young man in England. He told me that people expect different things out of us and when you show them the best they're surprised. That's the same way I've got these opportunities – the most important thing for everyone is to be nice to other people."
For information about becoming a supported lodgings host, go to ymca.org.uk