Network: For the homeless, employability is IT

Stephen Pritchard reports on an initiative to teach computer skills to young homeless people

A detour through Cardboard City, hidden in the underpasses of London's South Bank, is a sharp reminder that homelessness is one of the capital's unsolved problems.

For the homeless, moving on in life means breaking out of a cycle of unemployment. Without an address, everything from benefits to training is harder to find. Without work, it is harder to find a place to live.

Agencies that work with the homeless say that stereotyping is almost as big a hurdle. The public - and employers - fall into the trap of seeing the homeless as unemployable. But according to Streets Ahead, a recruitment agency that finds work for the homeless, 38 per cent of its job applicants have degrees, 43 per cent have A-levels and most have computer skills.

Keeping those skills up to date is not easy for people on the streets. Young people especially are at a disadvantage if they do not have access to computers. James Mellor is 21 and came to London two years ago. Family difficulties forced him to leave home in Cornwall; he arrived in the capital on Christmas Eve, and the first roof over his head was a night shelter.

James says he had no formal training in computers. "They did not teach computers at my school, but I was always sitting in my room programming," he says. "When I moved to London, there were not many opportunities ... You fall behind quickly if you don't study."

With help from the homeless charity Centrepoint, James moved into temporary accommodation, then to a flat. In November, he took a computing course under the Training For Work initiative. He is now looking for a job in IT and is working on his own software project, an encryption program to send data securely over the Internet or an intranet. Currently, he is looking for a partner or a company to market the application.

To do this, he needs access to computers. When Streets Ahead was opened last April by the Peabody Trust and Centrepoint, staff quickly realised that IT skills were vital. Programmes such as Training For Work can teach the basics, believes Paul Richards, of Streets Ahead. But it needs to be followed with hands-on experience.

Last week, with support from Gateway 2000, Intel and Microsoft, the agency installed a technology centre with a network of 13 multimedia PCs at its Kingsway offices. Gateway's support came about through the personal intervention of Mike Jarvis, the company's European business development director.

The centre will cost some pounds 40,000 a year to run, and Gateway is backing it for two years. One room will be used for Streets Ahead's own training courses. The other is for homeless people to hone their software skills or write CVs.

"Training initiatives get people up to a basic level, but employers are looking for in-depth IT skills," Richards explains. One of the best ways to build those skills is practice, but few people who are homeless or in insecure accommodation can buy a computer. "If someone just needs access to a computer to increase their technology skills, that is available. Flexibility is the key." This means that people who have taken IT courses can keep their knowledge current while they look for work.

In such a fast-moving field, there is always the danger that skills will rust or date. The Streets Ahead network is state of the art, and Richards hopes to add Internet access soon. "There will be the potential for people to develop their own Internet skills and Web design," he says. "It makes you look more employable, and puts the agency in a good position."

Internet access is not a bolt-on extra. As James Mellor points out, IT jobs are often advertised on the Web, and e-mail is the quickest way to find more information or to ask for an application form. "It is easy if you want to apply for a job on the Net: if you have an e-mail address, it is instant," he says.

Streets Ahead, and people like James Mellor, are challenging the notion that the homeless are "wasters" who have no need for hi-tech facilities. A survey by Streets Ahead in January found that 80 per cent of its applicants had a "good working knowledge" of Windows software. Gateway's Mike Jarvis recognises that IT skills are one way to give people a chance to return to work. But businesses should benefit, too. In time, Jarvis will recruit people from the technology centre to work at Gateway, and hopes other hi-tech firms will follow suitn

Streets Ahead, 129 Kingsway, London WC2B 6NH (0171-831 7764).

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