Health: Safe haven based on a West Side story: Cathy Read visits Base 51, a new drop-in health centre for young people in Nottingham

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Indy Lifestyle Online
STARTING next week hundreds of young people will descend on Base 51, a converted factory space in central Nottingham. The colourful, avant-garde interior resembles a set from The Word. In fact it is a drop-in health centre for 12- to 25-year-olds. There will be music, dancing, videos, health and contraceptive advice. There may even be the odd party, although the strongest substance in the house is likely to be tea.

Base 51, unique in Britain, is modelled on the Door, a revolutionary youth centre on New York's West Side. Like the Door, Base 51 will be a 'safe haven' for young people, offering a wide range of services and activities. It is designed to address health in its broadest terms, according to the World Health Organisation definition that states: 'Health is a state of optimal physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.'

Base 51 itself evolved from a nearby teenage sexual health clinic. The original clinic opened six years ago in response to Nottingham Health Authority's concern over high rates of unplanned pregnancy among inner-city teenagers.

According to Susie Daniel, a health promotion worker and now the project director of Base 51, the clinic was successful for young people who had the confidence to come through the door and knew what they needed. Despite the inner-city location, it was middle- class young women seeking contraception or abortion who accounted for most of the clientele.

'We started to ask what were the other health needs of young people,' says Ms Daniel. 'They have very high accident rates, there's abuse, attempted suicide, problems related to homelessness. I had a very strong feeling we needed to look at it as a whole.' The Door provided the comprehensive example they were looking for.

The new centre is designed to look like a 'supermarket of choices', with a long-term aim of open access for young people six days a week from noon until 9pm. Clinical services will be provided by the centre's own nurse and GP and will include sexual health (contraception, smears and screening and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases) and primary healthcare sessions aimed at the homeless. Young people will also have access to counsellors, either individually or in group sessions.

Other activities at Base 51 include drama, dance, music, sports and leisure activities such as aerobics and weight-lifting, self-defence and arts and crafts. A library is equipped with everything from health information to advice on careers and welfare rights.

Staff at Base 51 are not burdened by society's current vision of teenagers as a tribe of avenging Goths out to wreck cars, terrorise the over-30s and have unsanctioned and unprotected sex for fun. They believe that young people are more vulnerable than ever before and empathise with the opinion of one 18- year-old who expressed the view that growing up in the Nineties was like 'growing up in a vacuum'.

'It's not just today. When you're growing up you're always pushing the limits, and that's perfectly normal and healthy. But there are lots of changing parameters today that actually make that quite dangerous,' says Ms Daniel.

The changing parameters to which Susie Daniel refers include the risk of HIV infection and the increased availability of drugs and alcohol. Family breakdown has also contributed to unprecedented levels of homelessness among young people.

'If you're homeless and you've got nowhere to spend the night, me going and talking about safer sex and HIV infection is actually irrelevant. What's more important at that stage of your life is, where am I going to get the next cup of tea from, and where am I going to put my head tonight? We decided to address those primary needs first,' says Ms Daniel.

Although teenagers cannot sleep there, Base 51 is in contact with a range of agencies that can find overnight accommodation. Basic facilities at the centre include showers, lockers and a laundry.

The cafe will offer a nutritious three-course meal for under pounds 1. This is seen as an important feature in a world where even privileged teenagers consume junk food and little else. A 1990 survey by the Nottingham Hostels Liaison Group, entitled It Makes You Sick, found that many homeless teenagers had between pounds 1 and pounds 2 to spend on food each day. Their diet of tea, chips and a few convenience foods was widely deficient in essential nutrients and provided roughly half the recommended daily intake of energy.

Bill, 16, is just one example of the sort of teenager who could be helped by Base 51. Bill's alcohol habit began in the October following his 15th birthday. By the January, he was using amphetamines and LSD and attending 'rave' parties in Nottingham. He was repeatedly thrown out of the family home for violence towards his parents.

By March, Bill had been arrested for criminal damage and receiving stolen goods and was in danger of losing his job. Early one Sunday morning, Bill's parents were called to the local hospital. Bill was in casualty, suffering from acute hallucinatory fear; he was spouting gibberish and did not recognise his parents.

Although Bill has since recovered, with the help of a drug-abuse crisis counselling team, it is possible that with earlier intervention the crisis might have been avoided.

Base 51 could also have helped Tracey, 16, who was thrown out of the house when her parents discovered that she was pregnant. After several nights sleeping on a friend's floor, she found a place in a bed and breakfast hostel. When the hostel was shut during the day Tracey visited friends and walked the streets.

She finally got a council house in a neighbourhood where she knew nobody and had no social support. When the baby developed diarrhoea, both mother and daughter spent several weeks in hospital.

Base 51 will help pregnant teenagers to get health care and social support, and will provide advice on parenting and welfare benefits. Young parents will also be able to use creche facilities while they are taking part in activities at the centre.

The Government's offensive against teenage pregnancy, currently aimed at the under-16s, has left many people with the impression that somehow all teenagers are unfit to have children. This prejudice makes life extraordinarily hard for younger mothers.

'I think we've failed to address the fact that for a lot of young women it's a positive choice. At the moment they're dismissed as having made the biggest mistake in their lives. There's little research that shows it's detrimental to their physical health. What is detrimental to them and their children is lack of support,' says Ms Daniel.

Inner-city teenagers are not the only target clientele. Base 51 also hopes to attract rural teenagers who may feel isolated and are unable to confide in the family GP.

'The base line for me is a place where young people can come and start to feel good about themselves,' says Ms Daniel. 'Then they'll care more about themselves and what they're doing.'

(Photograph omitted)