Youngsters kept off streets

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Young people leaving care in Westminster are five times less likely than the national average to end up on the streets. They are also about twice as likely to have jobs and be on training schemes, while almost a third go on to further education.

Westminster Accommodation and Leaving Care, set up two years ago by the Conservative-controlled borough to help find jobs, housing and college places for youngsters leaving local authority care, has dramatically reversed national trends. The scheme, which celebrates its second anniversary this week, has helped 70 16-to 25-year-olds. Only two of have become homeless.

According to First Key, the national leaving care advisory service, up to 40 per cent of homeless youngsters in London have been in care at some time. A recent survey found that 15 per cent of those on the streets become homeless within three to nine months of leaving local authority supervision.

WALC was set up because of fears that children were receiving inadequate support after leaving care. It has six trained staff and a Chelsea drop-in centre. 'If you take all the care and support away as soon as they leave you are setting them up to fail,' said Centrepoint, the London housing charity. 'They are released without the skills to survive.'

Surveys have found that up to 80 per cent of care leavers nationally become unemployed within two and a half years of leaving local authority homes, whereas 30 per cent of Westminster's care leavers are in further education, 20 per cent in youth training, 15 per cent are employed and 35 per cent are unemployed or caring for children.

'Some of them have been around the streets for a couple of years, begging and sleeping rough,' said Steven Barry, manager of WALC. 'We're here to give them choices so they can feel confident to go out in the world.'

The project, thought to be the largest in Britain, receives a pounds 300,000 annual grant from the council. Westminster is the only local authority which gives students attending college or university a top-up grant to a maximum of pounds 47 a week.

Among those is Kerozia, 18, who has been in care for five years. 'I couldn't spell or read before they helped me - it was terrible,' she said. 'Now I'm doing my A-levels in computers. I want to work in an office, to be a secretary in a big City firm.'

WALC operates a job placement scheme and helps people apply to colleges and universities. Once at college the centre monitors their progress, meeting at least every six months.

Surveys have found that up to a quarter of female care leavers, age 16 to 18, have children. Westminster gives individual counselling to single mothers and helps them apply for state benefits and find nursery places.

Catherine, 20, who ran away from home at 13, has a four-year-old daughter, Stephanie. She is now a dental nurse. 'I am a strict mum,' she said. 'Without education you can't go anywhere. That's what I'm going to teach her. I learnt that the hard way.'

(Photograph omitted)

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