Red noses offer bouquet to young homeless

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The Independent Online
As Agnes and Rachel sit on the concrete step talking to 22-year- old Chris, the London sky brightens. The two women, one from West Africa, the other from Devon, live thousands of miles apart but they have a common purpose: helping young people off the streets and back into society.

Tamale is an impoverished city in north Ghana, where Agnes Chiravira, 38, is co-ordinator of a project which helps children - some as young as three but most in their early teens - to get off the streets and back into the mainstream community.

Back in Britain, 39-year-old Rachel Crane works at the London Connection, a day centre for homeless young people which offers advice, support and a warm place to meet for a chat.

Both projects are heavily funded by Comic Relief, which has raised pounds 112m for disadvantaged people in Britain and Africa since comedian Lenny Henry first introduced Red Nose Day nine years ago.

The pair are about to embark on a 10-day partnership, in which they will swop stories and advice, pick up tips and discuss the problems of helping young people who are homeless.

"I am amazed at the similarities between homelessness in Britain and Ghana," says Rachel. "The causes seem to be so similar. There is often the trauma of family break-up and the grip of poverty. Homelessness is the same the world over."

On first inspection, the problems of dealing with the homeless in Britain and Ghana seem to be quite similar, but it would be naive to say that things are wholly alike.

Agnes, whose year-old project caters for more than 600 children on a daily basis, thinks her youngsters are somehow more humble than their English counterparts. "We don't have any problems with drugs and we don't have any problems with alcohol, so our children seem a lot quieter. They don't shout and they are not violent," she said.

"It just about extreme poverty. We have no welfare system so a lot of the children are very young when they are forced to live on the streets."

By contrast, Britain's homeless children are generally older. Troubled youths fall out of social services care only when the reach 16. And illegal drugs, glue and alcohol are an easy way to escape the misery of failing in the sometimes judgmental eyes of family and society.

Yet when Agnes sits down to talk to Chris, the differences in their background and experience evaporate into the Spring air.

The young Glaswegian, who has been homeless for six years, is at first embarrassed to talk about his current situation, but as the African woman, unfamiliar with the streets of London, puts her hand on his knee and stares into his bloodshot eyes, he starts to relax.

"You just have to be positive because the rest of your life is before you," she tells Chris. "I say this to all my children. `Never give up hope and never say you are desperate'." Chris nods his head, appearing to agree with this optimistic view of his life.

The women have already decided to swap a couple of ideas. Agnes is particularly impressed with London Connection's cheap meals service and Rachel likes the concept of helping young homeless to set up their own artisan businesses.

As we leave the young man, sitting on his step in the busy Soho street, Agnes turns round to look at him. "When I first started working with the children I used to cry every day," she says with tears in her eyes. Perhaps things will be the same in London after all.

Events are taking place throughout the United Kingdom in aid of Comic Relief today, including a celebrity fun run through the City of London, a tripe-eating record attempt in West Yorkshire and a sponsored abseil down the Avon Gorge. The day culminates in a seven-hour Comic Relief television special starting at 7pm on BBC1.