A poet who found herself homeless as a teenager has helped launch pioneering workshops for school children, in a bid to stem a shocking rise in homelessness in Gwynedd.
Charity GISDA has launched the workshops in partnership with youth workers and teachers, with the first school to take part being Ysgol Dyffryn Ogwen in Bethesda.
Gisda Team Leader for Projects, Lee, experienced homelessness herself as a teenager said the project team also wants to quash preconceptions and prejudices, including the idea that every homelessness person begs on the streets.
In the first session of its kind to be held in the county, Year 11 pupils were given an insight into what life is like for homeless people, and some of the skills needed to survive such as budgeting, and where to go for help if they ever found themselves without a home.
They also heard about celebrities who have experienced homelessness such as Apple founder Steve Jobs, singer Ed Sheeran and actress Jennifer Lopez.
The classes are central to a £40,000 project funded by Gwynedd Council’s Youth Service, which is run by North Wales homelessness support charity GISDA.
The project specifically aims to prevent people slipping into homelessness by reaching out to them when they first encounter difficulties.
It follows a massive 575 percent rise in homeless cases over the last 20 years. Many cases involve young people aged between 16 and 25.
The charity says urgent action is needed to reverse the worrying trend which affects the future prospects of whole generations say GISDA course leaders Bethan Angharad Williams and Lee Duggan.
The pair took the new workshop format to a school for the first ever time, at Bethesda, where they said the response from pupils was ‘extremely encouraging’.
Lee said: “Anyone can end up homeless through different circumstances, family disputes, relationship break-ups, job losses, financial difficulties, leading to serious practical and emotional hardships.
“In many cases homelessness is ‘hidden’. Desperate people sofa surf between friends looking for a place to stay overnight or for a few days or weeks. This is homelessness at its least visible.”
Her own experience involved a traumatic breakdown in her family environment leading to her having nowhere to stay and ending up sofa surfing.
“I felt ashamed,” she said. “I didn’t want people to know about my situation, I felt lonely, isolated, having to rely on friends for help.
“As well as practical difficulties like finding food and shelter, emotional stress can culminate in a downward spiral or in some cases people turn to drugs or alcohol.”
Lee said: “The reason for going into schools and other community youth groups is to inform and educate young people, to make them aware of people and agencies who can help should they ever find themselves in difficulty.
“We want a safety net to catch vulnerable young people before they slip into homelessness, to steer them to help at an earlier stage.”
Bethan added: “We’re not trying to frighten youngsters, it’s all run in an interactive, positive way. Clearly not every teenager or young adult will personally experience homelessness but they might know someone on the brink.
“The goal is to increase awareness, educate people in a safe environment about resources available in this sort of situation, and to familiarise them with systems in place to help them or their friends.”
Mum-of-three Lee, a poet whose first poetry book Reference Points was published in 2017, got back on track though the education system. She worked hard to get into university, leading to a new start.
She said her personal experience made her all too aware of the need to educate young people and the wider community about the root causes of homelessness and its devastating effects.
The workshops were launched after a 575 per cent increase in the number of young people registered as needing support, from 83 in the year 2,000 to 561 registered between April 2018 and April 2019.
In the last five years GISDA, based in Caernarfon and Blaenau Ffestiniog, has worked with more than 2,000 young people, helping them with accommodation, financial issues, mental health support, and life skills.
The latest workshops have added to the GISDA armoury, with around 20 already successfully held at youth clubs, community groups and LGBTQ organisations.
Ysgol Dyffryn Ogwen youth worker Ffion Williams welcomed the Gisda course into school. She said: “The figures speak for themselves, we just can’t allow this situation to continue. The more we raise awareness of the problem and underlying causes, the more chance of reversing the trend.”
She added: “For many young people the temptation can be huge to leave their family, get out there and try to make a life for themselves at a young age. But the practicalities can come as a shock to the system.
“A fairly simple issue such as paying household bills can get them into dire straits as they realise there’s a lot more to budget for than they ever imagined. We don’t want to frighten young people or discourage them from trying to achieve their dreams, but we want to arm them with all the relevant facts and prepare them to face any problems they encounter on the way.”
Bethan, who co-ordinates between GISDA and youth workers like Ffion, said they were delighted to be holding their first workshop in a school: “We’ve run other successful courses at community groups and youth clubs but this is the first school visit.
“Reaching out to the Year 11 age group is crucial because they’re the ones who can help spread the message among their peers.”
She was heart-warmed by the response from the dozen Ysgol Dyffryn Ogwen pupils, aged 15 and 16, on the course.
She said: “Lee and I have come away with lots of hope. We were surprised by the recognition among pupils that there are so many different types of homelessness.
“Often when we’ve spoken to younger groups there’s been a misconception that being homeless always involves living on the street. They associate it with drugs, alcohol or crime.
“But this group showed a mature understanding of some of the issues. They clearly knew sofa surfing is homelessness, and that the issue affects all levels of society.”
Pupils Sophie Jeffreys, aged 16, and Jessica Davies, 15, both felt the workshop was beneficial.
Sophie said: “It’s certainly helped me realise there are organisations to turn to if I or my friends ever need help. I’m more aware now of places and people to approach.”
Jessica added: “It’s been an eye opener, informing us about support groups, different types of homelessness in communities and the fact that it’s not just the typical image of people trying to survive in a cardboard box on the street.”
Fellow pupil Leon Wild, 15, added: “It was interesting to learn of celebrities who experienced homelessness, like Apple founder Steve Jobs, singer Ed Sheeran and actress Jennifer Lopez. Homeless isn’t something which can be stereotyped. It can affect anyone.”
GISDA chief executive Sian Tomos said such positive feedback from the first school workshop was inspiring and a sign the project is heading in the right direction.
She said: “This is significantly encouraging. It’s our mission to make whole communities aware that homelessness can come to anyone’s door. We must work together to resolve the situation and help prevent it blighting the future of our younger generations.”
GISDA was established in 1985 to provide accommodation, support and opportunities for vulnerable young people in Gwynedd aged between 16 and 25. It supports young homeless people and their families.