Opening doors and strengthening communities – the Volunteer Host experience at Bristol Night Stop

I recently completed some communications work for new charity Bristol Night Stop. Bristol Night Stop is a daughter organisation of Caring at Christmas – the homelessness charity which I’ve previously volunteered for over the festive season – and a topic of some of my previous Blogposts. Below is a write up of one of the interviews I undertook with the host volunteers and a copy of the short promotional film that was made. The organisation is recruiting now! Could you welcome a young person into your home for a night? Please consider it.. more info can be found at http://bristolnightstop.org/

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The idea of welcoming in a young person you don’t know into your home for the night may seem like something you would never consider, but not for Richard and Heather Drake of Bedminster in Bristol. Since 2008 they have opened their door and provided overnight bed and breakfast to more than 100 young people in crises through the Bristol Night Stop project.  At a time when youth homelessness in Bristol is increasing whilst funding for support services are being cut both nationally and locally, I went to talk to Richard and Heather Bristol Night Stops longest serving host volunteers about their experiences and to investigate what exactly Bristol Night Stop involved and why they do it.

Bristol Night Stop is a sudden homelessness intervention scheme for young people in the city aged 16-25. It aims to provide immediate intervention and a short term accommodation solution to young person in crises. The charity aims to address the issues ‘from day one for as long as it takes’ providing a source of advocacy and support to the young person in order to address their immediate needs. Key to its successful operations are the volunteer hosts who provide a hot meal and overnight accommodation to a young person in crises.

Richard and Heather are two of the organisations longest serving volunteers and I was keen to find out more about them. What was it that made them want to give up their time and volunteer? What impact does an unknown teenager in crises have when staying in their house?

On first sighting their house is just like any other – a small terrace in Bedminster, Bristol with two modest sized bedrooms. Reassuringly unremarkable and at the same time very cosy I was greeted on arrival by Heather who ushered me in warmly, took my coat and offered me tea. My tour around their home illustrated that the ‘guest’ accommodation or spare room was furnished simply with a sofa bed. For me it felt like an average house but I soon learnt that for the young people who come to stay overnight, the stability and companionship that it brings can be essential respite from domestic upheaval with the next stop on the journey being the streets. The term ‘young person in crises’ is a broad one and can often associated with a host of chaotic life incidents and experiences but I soon learnt that the reality of the young people being referred by the organisation Bristol Night Stop was often quite different.

Many of the young people were those who had fallen through the system, who didn’t immediately qualify for statuary emergency services due to a lack of acute circumstances like addiction or physical abuse. The young people had come from a variety of backgrounds some were in work some not but all vulnerable, and as Richard told me ‘we can see how quickly people can deteriorate when life has gone wrong , and we don’t want them ending up at a night shelter’.

The services provided by the couple are quite simple, an evening meal and bed and breakfast in the morning.  Aren’t they worried? I asked about opening their door to an unknown youth? No, says Richard, there is nervousness but it’s always on the part of the young person, the role of the host is to relax and reassure, if you relax the young person will relax and that’s what it’s about’ Heather added ‘there a sense of trust simply letting them into your home.. having said that we really haven’t had any bad behaviour over the years – It seems to me actually quite a small thing to do, an evening meal and a bed for a night but it comes at a time that is actually crucial – a small thing can come at a time when it can make a big difference’.

Bristol Night Stop volunteers don’t necessarily have to come from a specific background, material or marital situation, and the organisation doesn’t distinguish on the grounds of race ethnicity or disability in fact applications from groups that are under represented are positively encouraged. Richard adds ‘We are already parents and we do it to reach out a hand to a young person.. We have seven kids between us all with their issues, we would like to think someone would be there to help if they needed it’ when describing the act of volunteering he suggests’ if people have got kids – if your son or daughter said their friend is having trouble with their family you would let them come and stay for a few nights, its not that different’.

Already I am won over by Richard’s twinkly eyes and gentle demeanour even so I thought, in practice how does it work out? I enquire about the need to take sensible precautions (by precautions I mean hide the family silver and well what about drugs or bad behaviour?). Richard smiles ‘ its very much about managing expectations  – you trust yes  but not too stupid degrees, just as you would have with friends of a son or daughter, you need to have a degree of faith in human nature yes,  but these kids have come from some difficulty and probably their behaviour has been part of that – but we have had very little problems over the years’.

As a host, the Bristol Night Stop does allow you some control over which kind of young people may come and stay at what your preferences are allowing the volunteers to place some of their own conditions around when and how the young people come to their homes.  All potential placements have previously worked with Bristol Night Stop and are risk assessed, so volunteers wouldn’t be placed with a chaotic heavy drug user for example. Richard points out that nerves got the better of the couple to start with adding ‘Now we don’t have really have any specific conditions but we may have done in the beginning before we became experienced’ .Every host is different,  Heather assures me, there are different degrees and different ways that people make themselves available – the hosts are matched with the young people and ideally there would be a lot of hosts around. If you have requirements and things are going to upset you let the young person know’ (for example sitting in a favourite arm chair!) As a host I need to say it because they are not going to know unless you tell them.. its about having the presence of mind  to say what bothers you – this is my preference, these are the boundaries, they are your guests, on your terms. You need to take charge yes, but you also need to know their name’

Heather and Richard are supported by Bristol Night Stop through ongoing mentoring and training and the process includes CRB checks, risk assessment, fire check as well as the opportunity to get together with other hosts who can also act as an additional source of information and experience – Heather  says  ‘meeting other hosts is a nice aspect we get together and have socials go to the pub and swop anecdotes – it’s a good support network and we get a good idea of all the different approaches the hosts take’. The organisation aims to keep hosts connected and communicating as well as being reflexive and responsive to the needs of both the volunteers and  the young people who are being supported, with Heather noting ‘we felt very well looked after by the organisation and always felt like we were never expected to do anything we didn’t want to do.

Beyond the Bristol network the Night Stop Scheme accredited by DePaul operates successfully in 40 other cities.

So the big question is why do they do it? In a world where it is all too easy to leave that empty spare room standing full of junk or sink into the sofa in front of the TV alone of an evening – what do the couple get from offering a bed to a young person they don’t know?

Richard explains ‘there are positive pleasures – it is a positive pleasure, you are not looking for a sense of gratitude or huge thanks because you won’t get that a lot of the time, these are young people in a difficult place in their lives they are not best placed to be grateful, but it’s all about meeting people, it’s interesting.  I like meeting people, it’s fascinating. You get the pleasure of seeing these young people who are nice people, its restores your faith in human nature.  It’s a fantastic demonstration that people are okay really’

For Heather compassion also plays a big part, suggesting it’s perhaps ‘a residual maternal concern about young people and the difficulties they get into’

Bristol Night Stop aims to be responsive acting quickly to sudden homelessness and the organisation places a strict limit in the number of nights placements can be (usually only 1 night, but capped at a maximum of 3) so the scheme does not leave any time for any deep bonding or soul searching between hosts and guests.  What about attachment I ask? Do you ever keep in touch? Never says Richard, ‘none of the young people that have stayed have ever come back to the house, it’s not part of the scheme – there are quite strict rules about boundaries .. you can’t come in as a rescuer , you need to have the bigger picture in mind. It can be frustrating to not know the rest of the story – where the kids have come from and where they are going, but your role is to just be there for them in the moment when they have nowhere else to go’.

Whilst the couple have stressed that the service they provide for Bristol Night Stop and its young people in crisis is actually quite a simple and easy one, In Richard and Heathers case it’s clear that the qualities of a volunteer host also include stability, a sense of humour and life experience, with the added benefits of wider family support – Richard says proudly ‘most of our friends and family think it’s a good thing we don’t really have any doubters … the kids are very supportive and think its sensible’

With homelessness in Bristol increasing there is a clear need for more volunteers and the organisation is currently running a host volunteer recruitment campaign for the Bristol Night Stop scheme with a number of events planned over the next year.  As well as illustrating the difference that the service makes to those young people who need it, my discussions with the volunteers have revealed that the act of opening your door to a stranger may not actually be as difficult or as dangerous as your initial preconceptions may have you believe?  In comparison to the significance that just one or two nights could make to the lives of a young person in crises the Richard and Heather have convinced me that the gesture is actually quite a small one.

There are many things that the couple could be admired for. Trust, compassion and an altruistic nature yes, but for me the greatest sense I am left with, is that of two people taking a simple action to assist a young person for a local cause they believe in.  As Richard’s final remarks to set out ‘host volunteering and opening your door to a young person in crises is not what everyone does or expects you to do yet people always talk about society having no sense of community – what is this if not the community they are wishing was there?’

Bristol Night Stop is based at the Fire Station and is recruiting host volunteers log on to http://www.BristolNightStop.org for more information.

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