A pioneering £40,000 project is being launched to help prevent homelessness among young people in Gwynedd, after a huge 575% rise in cases over the past 20 years.

Homelessness support charity GISDA has been commissioned by Gwynedd Council in a bid to reach young people in crisis, before they become homeless.

Councillor Dilwyn Morgan, Gwynedd Council Cabinet Member for Children and Young People said: “When we talk about homelessness, we may often think about people living on the streets in big cities. But the fact is that a number of young people may have no permanent home and are couch-surfing and living on a very temporary basis with friends or relatives.

“We want to help our young people so that they are fully aware of the help and support available to them here in Gwynedd. By engaging with young people as early as possible, we want to show them that they’re not alone and it’s ok to ask for help.

“I’m delighted that we are working with GISDA on this pioneering project and look forward to seeing the work progress.”

The GISDA team, who have bases in Caernarfon and Blaenau Ffestiniog, have worked with more than 2,000 young people in the last five years, helping them with housing or hostel accommodation, financial issues, mental health support, and life skills.

The charity has seen a staggering rise in the number of young people being referred and self-referring for support in the last two decades, supporting 561 young people from April 2018 to April 2019, compared to 83 referrals in the year 2000, a 575% increase.

The pioneering homelessness prevention project, funded by Gwynedd Council’s youth services department, will see school children and young adults aged 16-24 given access to free workshops in schools, and through youth and community projects.

The interactive sessions will provide an insight into the harsh realities of life as a homeless person, the reasons why people become homeless – often due to a family break down, where to turn for help, and some of the life skills needed such as how to live on a budget.

The goal is to raise awareness of the support that is available to those in crisis, in a bid to encourage young people to ask for help earlier.

Support workers from GISDA will run the sessions in conjunction with teachers and youth workers across the county.

Among the team is Support Service Manager Andy Smalley, who is this year marking ten years working with GISDA, was himself supported by the charity, when he was left at risk of becoming homeless after losing both his parents at the age of fourteen.

Andy, now 39, gave up his career as a chef a decade ago, to work with the charity and has witnessed first-hand the increase in the number of cases.

He said: “I first heard about GISDA because they helped me when I was a teenager. I lost both my parents, my dad died of a heart attack and soon after my mum became very ill, she was taken into hospital and died of a brain haemorrhage.

“I was 14 and my sister was 16 and we were at risk of becoming homeless. We were only able to stay at home because of the support we received from GISDA at the time, who took over my parents’ tenancy to keep us within our family home. My support worker from GISDA was absolutely fantastic, he was a role model and one of the few people who was real and honest with me at that time. GISDA gave us support with maintaining the house, making our own home, keeping on top of bills, and lots of emotional support too.”

Andy added: “To grow up without the support of your parents is very isolating. You don’t trust anyone and you feel really alone, you feel like your situation isn’t going to change and life won’t get easier.”

He added: “I remember with my sister, living with ice on the inside of the windows unable to heat our home. Going days a week without basics such as food and electricity”

“Things should be different in 2020.”

Of the 561 young people who GISDA supported in April 2018-1April 2019, 58% were homeless due to family or relationship break down, and 52% of young people reached out for help themselves and did a self-referral.

More than half, 51% shared that they had a mental health issue, 45% were sofa surfing and 5% were living on the street.

GISDA says the most common reasons for young people leaving home are because of a relationship breakdown or family disagreement, with the highest risk groups being care leavers, LGBT people and those who are adopted.

Andy Said: “Life becomes very difficult once people become homeless, people can turn to crime, addiction to cope with their situation.

“Life becomes a very lonely and isolated place which has an impact on people’s emotional and mental health and at times leaving people contemplating suicide to escape circumstances.

“It becomes very hard  for  people  to  find, maintain and succeed  in employment   when they have  such  complexity going on. Accessing benefits can alone be such a challenge. I understand at times people what to escape this life and turn to a life of drugs and alcohol to switch off from the chaos.

“Often they are very scared.”

Welcoming the funding from Gwynedd Council, Andy said the goal of the project is to encourage young people to access support earlier, to try to minimize the effects of such a crisis on their lives.

He said: “We welcome this funding to help early prevention and awareness of how to access support. It’s important that people feel comfortable to access services. We also want to make sure the message gets across to children in the right way. It’s a pretty bleak existence, so we want to let young people know what life is like and how challenging, isolating and scary it can be.”

He added: “Street sleeping is an issue in Gwynedd, it’s not so visible but we do see it, although in a lot smaller numbers than in big cities. A lot of the people we support are what is known as hidden homeless, in unsuitable accommodation, temporary   hostels or sofa surfing.

“I remember one young couple we helped who were sleeping in a car, because they didn’t want anyone to see them or know they didn’t have anywhere to stay because of the stigma attached to being homeless.”

Sian Tomos, chief executive officer for GISDA said: “We are delighted to have received this funding through Gwynedd Council.

“This will enable us to switch to a more preventative approach to tackling the rise in homelessness among young people in our county.

“It will enable us to run a coordinated campaign over the next four months, to make young people aware of the support that is available and know what to do if they are ever in the position where they feel forced to leave home.”

Sian added: “We are seeing more and more young people coming through our doors every year. Often it is due to people falling out with their family, and they have a lot of anxiety and they can be very difficult to engage with.

“This is an issue that is happening everywhere, not just in Gwynedd.

“This is a chronic problem, exacerbated by austerity, changes to the benefit system, and a lack of social housing, in particular one-bedroomed homes. We need to switch from a reactive to a preventative approach.

“Once people become homeless, they are more vulnerable to mental health problems and they can be more likely to drop out of school, college or work m then they can experience problems accessing benefits and a lot of other issues.

Sian added: “What’s important in this work is to make sure if you have a vulnerable teenager who is desperate to leave home, that they know what the support is and where to go to find it.

“We also want to educate children about how life can be if you do leave home, it’s not an easy option.

“We need to find better ways to give them the knowledge and skills to get support, but also get across the message to young people about how tough life is once you become homeless, and that it is not an easy option.

“We also want to let them know that is can happen to anyone, and not to be ashamed but to know where to go for help.”

“We will be looking carefully at the responses to our work to see what else we can do to support young people.”

GISDA was established in 1985 to provide accommodation, support and opportunities for vulnerable young people in Gwynedd between the ages of 16 and 25 years old.

The organisation supports young homeless people and their families throughout Gwynedd including single young people, single parents, expectant mothers, couples and families.

The name GISDA originally stood for ’Grŵp Ieuenctid Sengl Digartref Arfon’ which meant Young, Single, Homeless Group of Arfon.

Ongoing projects include supporting young parents, raising awareness of homelessness across schools, finding and providing accommodation for young people, and supporting their transition into employment.

The charity’s various social enterprises, such our café in Caernarfon’s town centre, provide further opportunities for young people.

The charity also provides accommodation for young people in Caernarfon, Felinheli, Llanrug and Blaenau Ffestiniog, along with shared accommodation in Dolgellau.

For further information about this project or information about a free homelessness workshop, please contact Steffan Williams to arrange on 01286671153

For more information about the work of GISDA visit: www.gisda.org/