The Foyer in Wisbech offers homeless young people much more than just a roof over their heads

THE moment that Michael McCarthy crossed the threshold of the Foyer in Wisbech last November, he knew it was the right place for him. I loved it when I first stepped through the doors, he says. The staff were so friendly and kind, the room was great a

THE moment that Michael McCarthy crossed the threshold of the Foyer in Wisbech last November, he knew it was the right place for him.

"I loved it when I first stepped through the doors," he says. "The staff were so friendly and kind, the room was great and everything was really clean and tidy."

One year on, he's just as happy (see panel).

Eighteen-year-old Michael is one of the 73 people who have lived at the Foyer since it opened in December 2006. Run by Axiom Housing Association, it provides accommodation and support for up to 17 homeless young people aged between 16 and 25 at any one time. They stay for anything between a month and two years. Almost all are teenagers.

The striking, award-winning building stands overlooking the River Nene, on land donated by Fenland District Council, which also put �330,000 towards the building costs. What goes on inside is far removed from the normal hostel for the homeless.

Paul Grimmond, the Foyer's manager, says: "It's not just a roof over their heads. It's there for young people who for various reasons have had some sort of hiccup - for example, a family breakdown or substance or alcohol abuse - that has affected their education. So what they need is a lift back on to the ladder of life."

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All residents must abide by a clear set of rules. They have to sign a "licence agreement", giving them a contract that clearly sets out what they have to do to be able to stay there.

That means either being involved in some form of education or training or actively seeking work. Every morning residents see a member of staff and agree what they are going to do that day. Education ranges from doing courses at local colleges to education and Youth Service training in literacy, vocational and job-seeking skills or being involved in the Nacro Youth East scheme for young people who have been out of education or work for some time.

"The whole concept of a Foyer idea is to be as non-institutional and as much like an ordinary home as possible," says Paul. "Treating people with respect is fundamental. Most of these people have never been treated with dignity and/or respect by anyone. Unless we are proved otherwise, we treat everybody here on trust; the more we expect our residents to treat the place well, the more they do. And we don't just have the nice, quiet ones - we have our fair share of challenging people, too."

The strict policy works. For example, says Paul, none of the paintings on the walls - all of which have been created by residents from another Axiom-run Foyer project - have ever been defaced. "The concept is that if you nurture people and educate them to a high standard, they will respect both you and their surroundings. In nearly three years we've had only one minor incident of damage - and that was just a tiny burn mark on a kitchen surface. It was purely accidental and the person responsible was very upset."

Each of the rooms is nicely furnished, with a bed, shower, toilet and basin, and a fridge. There are two communal kitchens, a laundry and television lounge on each floor, and a computer room with internet access.

If residents are on full housing benefit, they pay rent of �6.81p per week a week, which sounds a small sum but leaves them with only �44 a week to cover all their other costs - food, clothes, study materials, travel and socialising. If they earn more, they pay more.

Earlier this year, the Foyer created two "move on" studio flats, which residents can move into for about six months when they are ready. This allows them to prepare themselves before becoming totally independent.

From the outset the scheme has proved very successful, with nearly seven out of ten residents either moving into independent accommodation, returning home having rebuilt their fractured relationships with their families, or going on to higher education.

Cllr Kit Owen, FDC's portfolio holder responsible for housing, says: "With young people in this position, you have two options. Either you can invest hundreds of pounds to enable them to become independent and contribute something to society, or you can do nothing for them - and that could eventually cost society hundreds of thousands of pounds.

"So this project is a real investment in the future. And it's already proved a great success."

Michael McCarthy moved into the Foyer last November, two weeks before his 18th birthday. His social workers had told him - very late - that he couldn't stay with his foster parents after he was 18. His real mother lives in Nottingham.

"I was shocked because I thought I could stay with them till I was 21 if I stayed in full-time education," he says, sitting in his room, surrounded by his collection of DVDs and videos and with a picture of his birth mother on the wall.

"I panicked a bit about finding somewhere but my foster parents helped me look around. I did see another place - I'm not saying it was bad but it just wasn't right for me. I visited the Foyer three times and really liked it."

Michael is currently doing an IT course at the College of West Anglia in Wisbech. "It's going alright - it's a four-year course, so I'll be doing two years there and then going somewhere else.

"My mum would like me to stay - she thinks I've changed a lot since I've been here. She lives in Nottingham and I do get a bit 'familysick' - I do miss my family.

"I've been here nearly a year and I'm still adjusting to living on my own. You're only here for two years, then you have to move out. I'm a bit nervous about that. But I've got another year from now. Then it's 'adios, amigos'."

Here are just a few of the people whose lives have been changed by the Foyer:

SV's relationship with the mother of his child had broken down, with their accommodation adding to the pressure. While staying at the Foyer, he was not only able to rebuild that relationship but was also able to find work which allowed them to get a flat of their own.

BT had extremely low self-esteem and confidence when he came to the Foyer but over time and with support this increased to the point where he was able to undertake a 12-week Prince's Trust Team Programme. This transformed him and he is now living independently in his own flat and actively job-seeking.

TD came to the Foyer when her family left the country. She was part way through her A levels and was desperate to not have her education interrupted. With support she developed the life skills to maintain herself alongside her studies and she went on to do a course at De Montfort University.

EW was thrown out of the family home at the age of 16 because his family could not accept his sexual orientation. Despite this massive disruption, he continued to study Law, Psychology and English at A level and went on to Peterborough Regional College. He now has his own flat in Peterborough.

MD worked part time as she completed her hairdressing apprenticeship. Her employers were so impressed with her hard work that they offered her a full-time job. She now has her own flat.