THERE is washing drying everywhere you turn in Julie Carter's tiny flat in Grimsby. "We've been camping in the country," she explains, "and we all got covered in mud." Julie has taken in five homeless teenagers to live with her and her own son, 14-year-old Eliot. Sometime she even erects a tent in her back garden to accommodate extra visitors.
In her living-room, 23 more children aged between 12 and 17 jostle for space on the sofa, perch on the arms or settle for the floor. They come here every day after school and at weekends. The type of kids most people shun: members of a street gang which has often been in trouble with the law, many have drug, alcohol or psychological problems. They are a noisy bunch, too, shouting to be heard over a jungle beat not many 42-year-olds could stomach.
But Julie Carter is no ordinary 42-year-old. Tired of seeing these kids hanging round on street corners with nowhere to go, provoking the residents, intimidating local businesses and getting moved on by the police, she opened her doors to them eight weeks go.
With her fluffy hair, big eyes, talk of the "power of love" and the unvarying tone of quiet respect with which she addresses these rowdy teenagers, she seems at the very least naive, yet the kids turn down the music when she asks them to and, passing round a talking stick, take it in orderly turns to speak.
"Julie's like a mum to me," says 16-year-old Lisa, whose round cheeks have an unhealthy grey pallor. "She really helps. I've been living here for a week and have started to come off the drugs. I have been taking speed and coke since I was 13 - a dealer first gave them to me in exchange for me carrying heroin for him in my school bag."
"Julie listens to me," says Lou. "She's given me back some hope in life. Everyone's been telling me I'm bad since I can remember ... school, my parents ... they said I'd never even get a job, but Julie's already arranged some work experience for me a printer's."
A chubby 12-year-old describes how many of the gang, some as young as six or seven, were drinking alcohol on a regular basis before Julie invited them in for tea. "We'd be out on the street 'til 11 or 12 at night," he says, puffing on a sodden roll-up proffered by an older child. "They've closed down all the youth clubs near here and you get really bored. The older kids buy booze for the younger ones, it's cheaper than drugs, but if we got some dope or pills, we'd do them, too."
Daily life at Julie's flat is an endless round of washing, cooking, cleaning and cups of tea. The kids share the chores and, though money is tight, those who have homes bring food parcels for those who don't. The group has established a list of rules which are tacked to the back of a door.
Julie is the first to acknowledge that she has no qualifications for her self-appointed duties as house mother and counsellor but feels her own history gives her an insight and understanding that childcare professionals often lack. "I've been involved in prostitution, theft and self-mutilation," she admits. "When I was 21, I tried to kill myself but I dragged myself out of the gutter, literally, and made a good life for myself and Eliot.
"I can see the potential in these children that everyone's rejecting - they're bloody beautiful kids and I want to help them realise that. When I talk to them I try to rebuild their self-esteem. Things like the camping weekend bond us as a group."
Since Julie opened her doors the groups have experienced some major dramas including a heroin overdose and two attempted suicides. Eliot, who has been home-educated by Julie since he was 11, is remarkably unfazed by the changes in his domestic circumstances. "It's a bit stressful at times," he concedes, "but mum consulted me before she did this and I agree with her. The most I've ever shared my room with is eight - we sometimes let extra people stay over in a crisis, then help them sort things out with their families the next day. Pets are welcome, too. At the moment, a rat and two mice are residing in Eliot's bedroom. "They're often the only thing a child has got to love," Julie says.
Julie currently has a 15-year-old runaway staying with her. "He was sleeping out in a garage," she says. "I've asked social services to come and take him to a safe house but in two weeks nothing has happened. The police have told me it is illegal to have a child under 16 staying with me without parental consent, but what can I do? There are pushers, pimps and paedophiles out there and if I know that there is no way a kid is going home I want to give him shelter."
Tales of sexual, emotional and physical abuse by their families are common among Julie's "guests" but sometimes they are simply no longer welcome at home. "My mum and stepdad say they can't cope with me any more," says Lou. "They don't care where I am so long as I am not bothering them. They've got three other children now and mum's glad I've come to live with Julie."
The local authority is not impressed, maintaining that Julie's actions are "causing fragmentation within families". Their approach would be to mediate between the youngsters and their families in the hope of reconciliation. "Mrs Carter does not, in most cases, have the consent of these young people's parents for them living with her," said a spokesman. "She is also causing overcrowding."
Julie's neighbours are also opposed to her brand of philanthropy and she has been physically threatened. A middle-aged couple, who declined giving their names, organised a meeting recently which was attended by about 20 irate residents.
"These are the same kids who were hanging round damaging cars and being abusive," said one. "Why should we back a project to help them?" Residents are also worried that any sort of "hostel-type" situation in the area would lower the value of their houses.
Julie, meanwhile, is aware of the need to establish a more official base for her project and would welcome the involvement of the authorities. Together with a "core group" of enthusiastic children she has established an organisation called SOS 2000. They aim to acquire a large building in the area where they could set up a youth club and a hostel for homeless young people. The teenagers have generated all the publicity materials themselves and are washing cars and walking dogs to bring in funds.
SOS 2000 already has the support of local MP Austin Mitchell and several local businesses have offered sponsorship when it is up and running. "It's a race against time," says Julie. "I obviously can't operate from my flat indefinitely. But if I can't hack it what will happen to these young people? What will happen to the little hope they have got if yet another adult lets them down?"
Some names have been changed.
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