Sunday, 24 October 2021

Giving young people hope and a home

JUSTIN GAHAN has lived at the YMCA since October after being released from prison.

JUSTIN GAHAN has lived at the YMCA since October after being released from prison.

He had served half of his eight-year sentence imposed at Northampton Crown Court in 2010 for causing death by dangerous driving in a crash the year before that claimed the life of a friend.

He served the last part of his sentence at HMP Stocken, a category C prison in Rutland in order to prepare him for his release.

“It allowed me to work outside in the community,” says 25-year-old Justin, who is originally from Northampton.

“The thing about coming out of prison is it’s about finding people to give you a chance. The last six or seven months I was allowed home leave and visited my auntie in Henley for the weekend.”

It was this that persuaded him to start a new life here and the offer of help from the YMCA was essential.

Justin says: “It’s starting again and I needed as much help as I could get.

“South Oxfordshire District Council weren’t going to allow me to get on their housing register due to my conviction and the fact I wasn’t born here and hadn’t lived here.

“The YMCA is brilliant. It provides more than just the need for housing but also support in terms of finding a job. It has opened up doors and provided a foundation that I can work from.”

He found work as a landscape gardener while applying to university with help from, among others, the YMCA’s two full-time members of staff, chief executive Angela Healey and finance manager and administrator Lisa Grant.

Justin says: “With my applications for university I needed references and people to vouch for me who have had contact with me and these guys helped me with that stuff.”

He plans to study accounting and finance and has received offers from Reading University, the University of West London and Kingston University.

Justin says: “Whatever I do moving moving forward, it’s positive and it has to remain positive. The first thing was being away from Northampton.”

For Matt Brown and Chelsie McDonagh the YMCA provided romance.

Matt, 24, was living there when he met 18-year-old Chelsie and then she moved in early last year.

The pair were engaged on Valentine’s Day and are now in the process of moving out and into a place of their own in Gravel Hill.

Matt moved to Lawson Road after his parents relocated to Henley from Wallingford and there wasn’t room for him at their new property. “I’ve benefited from loads since I’ve been here,” he says. “I’ve done a first aid course and been a member of the football team. I’ve also helped run the youth club.”

He was the tenants’ representative and would mentor some of the new residents.

Matt has three jobs working at Pathways at The Henley College, which helps students with learning difficulties and disabilities, at cleaning firm Ecocleen and with the Mencap charity.

“The YMCA gives you a head start,” he says. “Now, in a way, I feel it’s time to move on.

“The YMCA has lots of things to offer the community, not just the residents. They like to involve everybody if they can.”

Chelsie, who had experienced problems living with her parents in Sonning Common, says: “If it wasn’t for the YMCA I probably wouldn’t be where I am today.

“This place has helped me build a lot of bridges with my family. We get on so much better now that I’m not living under their roof.

“The YMCA helps young people with somewhere to live and allows them to be themselves and if you need support you can come and have a chat with Angela or Lisa.”

With the women’s help she retook her English and maths GCSEs, passing the former, and also found work with Ecocleen.

Chelsie says: “Matt and I wanted to be together and we couldn’t do that here with the rules because it’s single occupancy but it has all worked out in the end.”

James Eggleton, 18, came to live at Lawson Road last summer after falling out with his father.

As in Chelsie’s case, that relationship has improved since the move.

James says: “If I hadn’t come here I probably wouldn’t have had a relationship with my dad at all.”

It’s a similar story for Ed Wynder, who moved into the YMCA only recently.

The 19-year-old was living with his mother but couldn’t get on with his stepfather.

His stepfather approached the YMCA for advice and Ed also spoke with Mrs Healey.

Ed, whose father lives in California, says: “I went to live with my auntie but she couldn’t have me for long.

“I’m hoping to continue growing as an adult, save some money and just have some independence.

“If this place wasn’t here I’d probably have to live with my dad.”

Laura Ruddy, 26, is living at the YMCA for a second time having spent six months there when she was 19.

She had shared a house in Henley for two years but wanted to be on her own.

“I want my own space but it’s so expensive in Henley,” she says.

“The house was falling apart, there were about three or four people in one room and I didn’t have the key for my door for the first year I was there.

“I’m glad I’ve got my own space again.”

Maryjane, 19, said she was kicked out of home in Caversham when she was 17.

She rented a flat with a friend in Reading around Christmas 2013 but ended up looking after her friend who suffered with mental health problems.

“It got to the stage when it was getting too much,” she says. “I was working so many hours just to pay the rent.

“I didn’t want to waste money on a place that was extortionate.”

Now Maryjane works at the Mill Meadows Nursery and After School Club.

She says: “I feel much less stressed not having to worry about money. I’m calm and I’m now saving for my own place.”

Henley YMCA was founded in 1857 and has been at its current home for 15 years.

As well as providing housing, the charity runs money management courses in association with the Henley Citizens Advice Bureau and helps people to use computers and social media.

Mrs Healey says the YMCA is “a local charity for local people”.

“It offers an opportunity for them to get a job or an education,” she says. “You need to have a strong local connection, either through family members or you might have lived in the parish or are working in  Henley.

“This age group are not a priority for housing. They are seen as young, fit and healthy but they are outpriced.”

She says the YMCA provides a clean, safe environment for the tenants who have their own facilities.

By the time they leave they have the knowledge and skills to manage a tenancy agreement in the private lettings sector.

“We provide a very important service to young people in Henley needing accommodation,” says Mrs Healey.

The charity is run very tightly when it comes to the finances.

Tenants pay £98.57 a week for a studio apartment and £114.92 for a flats.

“We don’t get any help from the council —we’re self-funding through our rents,” says Mrs Healey.

“We don’t waste money — every penny that’s saved is put back in and our tenants benefit from that.”

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