Charity still throwing rough sleepers a lifeline after 40 years

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Left to right, Heather Barrow, Katy Middleton, Roxanne Chester and Ken Mbiro Left to right, Heather Barrow, Katy Middleton, Roxanne Chester and Ken Mbiro

Hundreds of young people will be sleeping rough and in desperate need of support to get their lives back on track this Christmas, and one Waltham Forest organisation is throwing them a lifeline.

For the past 40 years, faith-based organisation Forest YMCA in Walthamstow has provided emergency accommodation for thousands of people across the borough without a permanent roof over their heads.

Forest YMCA’s head of residential services, Heather Barrow, 47, says homelessness is often a taboo subject and is routinely misunderstood by members of the community.

“People think of a homeless person as an older person that looks rough and drinks alcohol on the street, but a homeless person is anyone that doesn’t have a permanent roof over their head.

“A homeless person is invisible in today’s society and people don’t recognise or acknowledge the problem of homelessness,” says Ms Barrow.

Ken Mbiro, 26, from Enfield, turned to the YMCA in January this year after walking out of his family home in December 2012.

The decision to leave his family home was the result of family problems, and felt he had no choice but to leave. Before Ken was recommended to the YMCA, he spent many nights sleeping on park benches and ‘couchsurfing’.  

“On Christmas Day, I was all by myself, there wasn’t anyone to call upon and it was a very daunting experience,” said Mr Mbiro.

One year on Ken is working with Forest YMCA’s in-house training programme Practical Achievement in Creating Employment (PACE) and says he now has a positive outlook on life.

“I feel good and feel as though I have been given the space to be able to grow within myself. I’ve been given support I never had, and have been able to work and educate myself through the PACE programme.”

Unemployed and claiming job seekers’ allowance for two years, Roxanne Chester, 26, from Walthamstow, fell out with her mother due to constant arguments with her brother and left the family home in November 2012.

Roxanne spent two months staying with her friend until she was recommended to register with the YMCA in Forest Road.

Roxanne said without the essential support of the YMCA, she wouldn’t be in the positive position she is today.

“Forest YMCA has given me so many opportunities that weren’t available to me before. I have new friends, a roof over my head and I am more of a confident woman now because I have a CV with references.

“Without a doubt, I wouldn’t be in this position without Forest YMCA.”

Katy Middleton, 19, of Walthamstow, missed out on having a normal education due to full-time family commitments. Before the age of 10, Katy took on the responsibility of looking after her younger brothers, and by the age of 15, she was kicked out of school.

Katy’s parents had mental health problems and her father became paranoid for her safety when she left the house. By the age of 17, Katy said she became fed up with her father’s protective ways and started running away from home for months on end.

After spending six months staying with a friend, Katy referred herself to Forest YMCA in July and is enrolled on the PACE programme.

She said: “When I first got to the YMCA I messed about a lot. I didn’t care about how destructive I could be but the staff stuck by me. Soon enough I realised that if I didn’t sort myself out, I’d be on my own.

Katy regularly visits her parents and said she has a much healthier relationship with them as a result of turning to Forest YMCA.

As Christmas approaches, the 300 residents at Forest YMCA will either return home to their loved ones, or spend the day with staff and other residents at the shelter.

Either way, thanks to Forest YMCA, they will have a roof over their head and not be alone at Christmas.

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