The north Belfast project giving homeless teens a safe place to land
AS the number of children in care grows year on year, so too does the number of homeless teenagers 'ageing out' of the system. Bimpe Archer finds out about one project providing them with a safe place to land
LIZ Lundy and her sister were about to finally embark on their long-anticipated trip to Australia when the world went into lockdown in March 2020.
Having reached the golden milestone of retirement ("65 and some months," she recalls), Liz was expecting to close a chapter in her life during which she helped give homeless teenagers stability when they needed it most.
She ran the Simon Community's 242 assisted-living project in north Belfast until finally stepping down this month.
"I didn't actually decide right off the bat that I wasn't going to retire - there was nobody to cover and I just played it by ear and kept going until someone became available."
A mother-of-two and grandmother to nine, Liz was never going to walk away from her charges - especially not in the middle of a pandemic.
"Some of them come on their 18th birthdays, which is quite harsh," she says with measured understatement.
Children living in residential care homes `age out' of the system at 18 and she tells of teenagers handed bags of their belongings at school and told that they were not going back to the place they had been calling home.
Others have come to her aged just 16.
"In foster care the money stopped at 16. A few years later it was raised to 19. I can't understand how you could foster a child from six 'til 16 and then when the money stopped say - that's it you're out."
Northern Ireland's Going the Extra Mile (GEM) scheme is supposed to give "appropriate and agreed levels of financial support" to help children in foster care "remain in a supported family environment until they reach age 21".
However, while the numbers of young people staying with their foster families `have increased year on year', according to The Fostering Network "we have not seen the step change needed".
It believes the current regime "places significant emotional pressure on foster carers to agree to a post-18 arrangement with a young person with whom they have a strong familial relationship even if they cannot afford to lose a significant proportion of their fees and allowances".
Liz started working with homeless young people at a Simon Community project at Cliftonville in north Belfast in 2006 after moving on from a job at a supported living facility for people with learning disabilities.
"I was a support worker in a small three-bed unit. That was with three young people (aged) 16-18. Up until that point in time I didn't realise young people were homeless.
"I remember going home and saying to my sons `You don't know how lucky you are'. I just couldn't believe young people could be homeless."
The numbers of Northern Ireland children and young people `continuously in care for more than a year' has risen by 87 per cent since 2006.
This increase means the pressure for places in units such as 242 will only grow in the years ahead.
According to the latest government statistics, there are now 2,763 children and young people in continuous care - a rate of 63 children per 10,000 of the population aged under 18. In 2006 that figure was 1,480 (34 children per 10,000).
The Department of Health data shows 17 per cent of were `of pre-school age', 38 per cent were of primary school age, 28 per cent aged 12-15 and 17 per cent were 16 years or older.
There are a higher proportion of looked after children from Catholic background (52 per cent) than Protestant backgrounds (34 per cent) - the rest reported as having either `No', `Unknown' or `Other' religious denomination.
It is difficult to get a clear picture of the number of homeless teens in the north.
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey says there were 1,481 placements in hotel and bed and breakfast accommodation of 18-25-year-olds, compared to 320 in 2019.
However, a further breakdown by age is not readily available and her department stress "some individuals may have been placed multiple times so it is not the case that the number of young people quadrupled".
Perhaps because of the fostering allowance changes cited by Liz, most young people at the Antrim Road unit are entering from residential care or their parental or family home.
The `youth accommodation project' is designed to assist their transition towards independent adulthood, providing a nurturing environment. It is run by the charity in partnership with the Housing Executive and Belfast Health & Social Care Trust.
During Covid-19, staff managed to help three residents move out and into their own flats where they are "still managing well".
"Most days over the last period they have been very settled," Liz says.
"Seven out of eight young people are all in work, training, employment and school. One young fella is doing his A-levels and heading to university next year."
Support workers help with a range of issues, including accessing education, services, food and clothing, helping `health and wellbeing', female advocacy, socialising, activities and assisting in reconnecting with family.
"We have five flats and five bedsits - all self-contained and with their own kitchen and bathroom, fully furnished," Liz says.
"I could fill this place 10 times over. Most of them would be quiet at the start and it does take a period of getting to know them. The under 18s that come from the trust get two years.
"Even starting at 18 can be quite a traumatic time for them, having to learn about Universal Credit and housing benefit, all these traumatic things. Life starts at 18."
Chris (not his real name) is 18 and moved to the unit from his grandmother's house.
"I moved in to 242 the first time when I was 16. I chose 242 because I'm from north Belfast and it's near my family," he says.
"My first time was for a two-week assessment bed and I then moved back to my granny's.
"During the two years I was away from 242 I was in a secure Juvenile Justice Centre because of my offending and drug use. I moved back in to 242 when I was 18."
His story of family breakdown and substance abuse is not uncommon among the teenagers who find sanctuary at the unit. The staff have to manage the complex needs of the young people.
"Mental health services for young people are atrocious," Liz says
"They need to come up with another idea. I have sat for hours in hospital with various people only to be told `Go on home, there's a leaflet'.
"There was one girl who wouldn't go to hospital, she said `Sure they're just going to send me home with a leaflet'. I told her no, thinking, surely this time someone will do something. We waited for six hours and sure enough were sent home with a leaflet."
She says the two biggest issues they are dealing with are self-harm and pill popping.
"Young people take them and they know the risk, but they still take them and they mix them, so they don't care what they're taking - `buds' [the anxiety drug pregablin], diazepam... street drugs."
Liz says because there is "not a dual diagnosis team", the teenagers are weaned off the drugs "before they can deal with mental health", but the delays mean this is often never addressed and the cycle continues.
Chris said he "really liked" 242 from the moment he arrived,
"I'm from the area, I feel comfortable, I'm near my granny, and I get on really well with all the staff.
"I really like living in 242 and feel like it's really helped with my drug use and my offending. I like the security of having 242 to call 'home' right now and having staff that will always help me."
It is hard to overstate the importance of the stability that the unit provides.
"242 provides me with security. When I was living with my family I would be asked to leave whenever we fell out and that doesn't happen at 242," Chris says.
"We try to give them as good a start as we can," says Liz, who has always been determined that none of the young people would move from the facility into the challenging environment of adult hostels.
With housing stock in short supply, making sure they can keep any tenancies they manage to secure is vital.
"We try to show them `Play your music, but a bit less at certain times, you really need to think about other people going to work or school or college in the morning, just because you're wanting to sit up all night - use headphones'.
"We always say `No partying in your flat. If you want to party go to someone else's flat'."
Chris says he is "getting on really well and really like living at 242".
"I like having my own space and time to myself and I get help to work on the skills I'm going to need when I live on my own.
"I'm getting there, Rome wasn't built in a day."
"We hope we have made a difference," Liz says.
"They will come back and phone, pop into the door. Some will cut off completely when they leave, and then suddenly you'll get a visit and get to see them again.
"I feel we've done quite a lot of good. That's our goal, just to get them ready to live in the community and able to support themselves and manage their lives."