14 March 1997

KIDS WORK

TO MAKE A LIFE

There is more to the growing problem of homelessness among young people than the provision of hostels can solve. Tessa Gates went to Crag House Farm, Leeds and met people who offer real care in the community

HOMELESS youngsters are a problem most of us would rather not contemplate. They seem an anachronism in this age of the welfare state and compassion is sometimes hard to find for a burly youth slumped on the pavement or aggressively begging.

Why havent they got homes to go to, they must have come from somewhere, surely? Unfortunately somewhere is usually a childrens home or institution which sheds its responsibility just as the temptations and tribulations of life are hardest to handle – the teenage years.

Peter Parkinson, a Baptist minister from Leeds, who with his own family befriended children from a home in the city, saw for himself the desperate situations that befall youngsters when they are pushed out into the wide world. He didnt turn his back on the problem.

"We used to have children from the home come to the Manse, a nice semi in a nice area of Leeds. They played with our children and used to get a bit noisy or rowdy in the garden – and people didnt like it," recalls Peter.

"When the kids reached 16, 17 or 18 and left the childrens home they had nowhere to go. Short-term fostering often broke down and the children were so institutionalised they found it hard to set up home and cope on their own. These youngsters had often suffered terrible abuse and didnt have family to back them up or return to when budgeting, housekeeping and loneliness got too much.

Action was needed

"We began to see some of the young people we knew and loved getting into some very bad trouble. I said somebody should be doing something about this and it came back to me that no one was. I started to think that if I could help one or possibly more, then at least it would be something."

He felt that a house with a bit of land would be a first step but on a ministers salary it seemed unlikely that he would be able to afford it.

But then Crag House Farm on the outskirts of Leeds came up for sale and although Peter couldnt afford to buy the land, he was able to purchase the dilapidated house, a paddock and a field. "Sadly, just after we moved in, my father died. A year later my mother, who had found it difficult to live on her own, came to live with us. She purchased the barns, 8 acres and a paddock, and later we were able to buy anther 7 acres so we eventually had the whole farm."

Crag House Farm provides training in agriculture, horticulture and workshop skills both for young people who will go on to other jobs and for some who are unemployable in the big wide world, but can realise their potential with dignity in this supported environment. "Our only criteria here is that if no one else will take them, we will," says Peter.

But the farm could not be run on a ministers salary and 10 years ago Peter founded Caring for Life (CFL), a registered charity to which he gave the land and buildings of Crag House Farm. "People say it was a big sacrifice but it wasnt really. Ministers dont usually own property," says Peter who is chairman of the trust but draws no salary from it.

The young people who come to the farm daily are either residents at Tindall House, which is owned by CFL and which offers eight previously homeless men somewhere to stay, for life if necessary, or from CFLs resettlement project.

"Residents of Tindall House have to come here daily if they havent got a job," explains Peter. "A long-term unemployed person sits up all night watching videos and then doesnt get up until one in the afternoon. Here our day begins at 7am, although officially work starts at 9am. If the boys get here before 8.30am they can have a three-course breakfast and some come early for this."

Work environment

The farm tries to provide a proper work environment with codes of conduct, but the work rates and manning levels will never meet those of a commercial enterprise.

Peter is convinced that being able to experience the freedom of the countryside and learning to enjoy and care for animals and the environment has tremendous therapeutic value for damaged youngsters, and over 30 young men have gone on from the farm to get related jobs and two have gone on to further education.

Some will always need a sheltered environment, like Anthony, who was brought to the farm by a social worker. He was 18, and had been dumb from the age of five. "The social worker answered every question I put to Anthony, but somehow I felt his lack of speech was not a physical thing," says Peter. Having distracted the social worker, he explained to Anthony that he could have a home for as long as he liked with CFL but he would have to tell Peter if he really wanted it.

"He said one word, Yes! and then we didnt get another word out of him for three months, although he seemed to be talking to the animals. We got him talking through them," says Peter.

It takes patience and understanding to work with Anthony and the others who train at the farm, and Peters son Jonathan (26), who is the farm manager, has this in abundance.

Comfortable regime

"I have known some of the lads for so long I can see a problem coming. Ive had no social work training but I can give them support and we try to get through by having a regime in which they feel comfortable," says Jonathan, who farmed straight from school and took his HND on a day-release course.

His younger brother Timothy also works for the trust providing a designing and printing service anyone can access. Like the car maintenance and valeting service, and the produce from the polytunnels and farm, the printing service brings an income.

But Peter and Jonathan are not wishy-washy do-gooders, nor do they expect the people they work with to embrace the Baptist faith. "We have high expectations here and try to make our people realise they have a responsibility to help themselves and that money has to be earned," says Jonathan. "Everyone who is here is doing things that are useful, although perhaps not a days work in the usual sense. We cant function as a commercial farm although we try.

"Some of the most brutal kids relate to the little fluffy animals, the placid guys go for the big ones," he says. The farm has all sorts from Angora rabbits and birds of prey to sheep, cattle, pigs and poultry.

Through its home and work schemes, CFL, in addition to Tindall House, places about 50 people a year in homes of their own, visiting each one weekly to start with and offers 24-hour support just a call away. The initial accommodation is basic, but if they remain for 12 months then they are helped to find something better. "The support we give gets us an 87% success rate and they dont return to the streets," says Peter. Another agency for the homeless in Leeds achieves just 2% success.

Money sources

But all this work takes money and CFL spends £400,000 a year on care. It employs 14 people but administration and PR costs are minimal, and although it benefits from money through the church and from other trusts, 56% of its funds comes from personal donations of under £50. One American girl sends $1 a week.

"We are grateful for all donations. Unfortunately, it is far easier to motivate people with a picture of a foreign orphan rather than a hulking great lad from Leeds with tattoos," says Peter, realistically.

At the farm they are keen to open a working museum in the 17th century barn to attract visitors and for this they are desperately seeking old implements. "Any old machinery will be welcome, we can refurbish it in our workshop," says Jonathan, "but we particularly need a horse-drawn baler and rotary cutter and any other horse-drawn implements."

Harness for a Shire is also needed as they only have one full set, and a cart to take farm produce on a delivery round would be a prized donation. Contact: Caring For Life, Crag House Farm, Cookridge, Leeds LS16 7NH. Tel (0113-2612131).

Baptist minister Peter Parkinson (left) is chairman of Caring for Life and his son Jonathan (right) is farm manager. Anthony (centre) works with the livestock. Joseph (below) works with the two Shires. Harness is needed for the younger one.

Vehicle maintenance and valeting is one of the services which brings some income to the enterprise.

Workshop manager Rob Newby (right) with Jonathan Parkinson (rear) and Gary. Bird tables and planters are made and sold from the farm.