A sort of legal aid for young people in need: Barristers are joining together to help the homeless. Bridget Furst hopes they set a precedent

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The Independent Online
WE ARE all upset by the sight of homeless people living rough on streets near where we work or live. Sometimes, though, and in a small way, it is possible to do something about it.

My husband is a lawyer in London, with chambers on the edge of the Temple, close to the Law Courts in the Strand. The area - and not just Lincoln's Inn - has increasingly become a magnet for homeless people. Their plight, and begging, has become impossible to ignore.

A couple of years ago I noticed that the stretch of pavement outside the chambers was regularly used by two young men who slept there, heads in boxes, bodies in sleeping bags. It seemed such a shocking contrast to the successful publishing businesses and lawyers so close at hand. In talking about these boys to his colleagues, my husband discovered that many lawyers in the area were giving money, drinks, food and sometimes clothes to these and other regular rough sleepers. This spontaneous help is repeated all over London hundreds of times a day.

At the same time, however, doling out small amounts of assistance is nothing more than a lifeline for the younger group of homeless people - they actually need protection, support from social workers, sometimes medical help and certainly assistance to get through the benefit and housing maze. Many of them have come straight from a life in local authority care and so, even if they do have a family, there could be too many problems to cope with.

From my experience as a social worker before I had my children, I knew of all the good work done by specialist agencies such as St Mungo's, Shelter and Centrepoint Soho. So a year ago I set about creating a fund-raising scheme that will bring together all those little contributions and use all the goodwill that I knew existed among the lawyers based around the Inns of Court. I felt that a scheme would provide a focus and use the contributions more efficiently.

Rather than attempt to reinvent the wheel, I approached Centrepoint Soho to offer them the potential new fund - and so the Barristers' Young Homeless Appeal was created. It is to be launched today. John Rowe QC, chairman of the Bar Council, and Lord Williams of Mostyn QC both back the scheme with enthusiasm.

The funds raised will go towards the running costs of bedsit projects and social work support for the homeless young people who are motivated to seek help from Centrepoint Soho. Barristers, judges and clerks have been invited to covenant pounds 10 per month each for five years, and the funds raised from only 300 such pledges will be pounds 239,000 - enough to help hundreds of young people.

The idea is to join the pennies together and make some pounds and, at the same time, to encourage hundreds of relatively privileged people to take an active role in giving a chance to a group that is less fortunate.

This sort of in-house scheme could, perhaps, be used by all manner of institutions where there is some kind of formal link between colleagues. It needs hardly any financial outlay and, once a charity has been 'adopted' by the group, that charity may well have the apparatus to help the administrative side of the arrangements.

One person can easily cope with setting up such a scheme, and there is enormous enthusiasm just waiting to be tapped. One only has to read of the amounts raised by telethons, Children in Need and similar events to know. Even in the current climate of financial cutbacks, nearly everyone can face the idea of covenanting pounds 60 or pounds 120 over a year without feeling that their bank account will suffer. The sum of pounds 2.50 a week is only a couple of glasses of wine in a wine bar after work, if that.

The great result is that everyone gains some satisfaction - from the donor to the recipient. This fund-raising model should be copied and copied and copied - it is such a simple idea.

More information on the Barristers' Young Homeless Appeal can be obtained from Centrepoint Soho (071-379 3466).

Margaret Maxwell is on maternity leave.

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