As co-ordinator of the Darlington Charity Stop2Night, Bridget Chapman helps place young people in volunteers' homes - including her own. She tells Lindsay Jennings how her experiences of homelessnes and an abusive relationship help her identify with many of them.

WHEN Bridget Chapman gets a referral, a young person who needs a bed for a night or two, she knows exactly how they are feeling. She knows they will have little if any money, will possibly have fallen out with their families or be fleeing abusive relationships, and that the only option ahead of them is a busy hostel or a night sleeping rough on the streets.

Bridget, coordinator of the Darlington-based homeless charity Stop2Night, knows how they're feeling because she was once homeless.

The mum-of-five was born in France and moved to Slough with her French mother when she was nine, after her parents split up. When she was 17, she went to live in Manchester and work voluntarily with a Catholic-run charity which housed homeless men. She'd found the work through her uncle who was a Catholic priest and a rent-free flat went with the job. But when she let her boyfriend stay over at the flat one night - which was against the charity's rules - she found herself without a job and a home.

She did manage to find a place to stay after contacting her local council, but it was in a run-down bed and breakfast in Manchester's red light area.

Sitting in the warm offices of Stop2Night at the Grange Road Baptist Church, in Darlington, Bridget, 36, shudders as she recalls the surroundings.

"I had hardly any possessions, just a few clothes, and when I told my friends where I was staying, they thought I was a prostitute," she says.

'It was run by a couple from Russia or something and wasn't the sort of place you hung around in so I would leave in the morning and come back at night. There were mice - we had to hang bread on a hanger in the wardrobe so the mice didn't get it - and there wasn't even a kettle, we had to hire one from the landlord.

"I felt like I wasn't really part of society, I felt really low. I could have gone back home, but at that age I was independent and I'd left a difficult family life behind."

Bridget moved in with her boyfriend and his parents after a couple of months, but that wasn't the end of the turbulence. Her boyfriend became abusive and took to beating her up.

"I felt really unsettled. I had no stability in my life and he was very violent. I should have been in hospital sometimes, but he would never take me," she says. "He beat me up so bad once that my eyes were like two little holes. He used to say, 'if anybody asks, just say you were in a car crash'.

"The trigger would be anything small - if I'd cooked for him and it wasn't a certain way he would fly off the handle. He stopped me visiting my friends and my family and they weren't allowed to visit me, it was just awful."

Once again her Catholic priest uncle helped her, and, aged 19, she fled to a convent in Glasgow.

"It was nice living there because it was really peaceful," she recalls. "But I was scared that he would follow me, so I used to look under my bed and in all the toilet cubicles. I got to know the nuns quite well and they gave me lots of support, I was surrounded by people who cared."

Bridget eventually left the convent to work in a hotel as a chambermaid and found herself in the North-East when her mum moved up to Catterick. She began voluntary work with Stop2Night 11 years ago, when the charity was known as Darlington Night Stop.

The charity was launched in 1993 with the aim of providing emergency, short-term accommodation for young people aged between 16 and 25 in Darlington and Teesdale.

It is a vulnerable age group and one made up of alarmingly high numbers. Research by York University's Centre for Housing Policy found that during 2003, nationally there were nearly 52,000 young people classed as homeless - meaning they had nowhere to live or were in unfit housing - equal to the total number of 15 to 19-year-olds living in Leeds. One in eight of the homeless youngsters had experienced living on the streets, the research found, but the researchers suspected the actual number of homeless was being hidden from local authorities and that the figure was closer to 250,000.

Young people leave home for a number of reasons, but common factors include a disrupted family life, unplanned pregnancy, fear of violence in the home or drug or alcohol misuse.

Through Stop2Night, host families offer the youngsters an average of three nights' accommodation in their homes to enable them to get on their feet. Volunteer drivers take the young people to their hosts so they can introduce them and ensure they settle in.

Bridget initially joined the charity to help man the phones, but after a year she decided she wanted to be a host too. She admits, however, to being nervous the first time.

"It was a girl who stayed with me first and I can remember feeling really scared, very nervous," she says. "I was worried about what they were going to be like, if they were going to be abusive or aggressive. But she was fine and, when you think about it, it's scary for both parties.

"When I tell people I'm a host they think I'm mad. They automatically think this person is going to rob you blind or they see them as drug addicts, but at that age they're just generally going through a rough patch - no-one is immune to being homeless. Nobody chooses to be on the streets."

Bridget has been a host for ten years, but she says the charity needs more families to come forward. They currently have three families, including Bridget, but would ideally like five or six. Referrals come from various organisations such as Darlington Borough Council, social services and the Darlington charity First Stop and occasionally the police.

"Our referral process is very good. We don't accept anybody unless we know as much about them as we can," she says.

"The charity has never had any abusive behaviour from any youngsters and only two minor incidents of theft. There were 152 young people whom we helped in the last financial year alone. We don't take people who are under the influence of drugs, alcohol or solvents or who have criminal convictions for violence or sexual assaults. If there's a doubt in my mind we don't take them."

People who are volunteering to be hosts need a house with a spare room and should be compassionate and non-judgemental. Single people can act as hosts but women are never put with male hosts and vice versa. The charity pays £40 per stay to cover food, washing and hot water, etc.

According to Bridget, the young people vary in character, from those who are quiet and a little withdrawn, to others who are glad for a friendly ear and welcome the opportunity to talk.

Bridget has five children, aged between nine months and 12-years-old, and none of them have a problem with the "visitors" to their Darlington home. Partner David is also incredibly supportive, she says, which is just as well seeing as they take in up to 30 youngsters a year.

"They're used to it," she smiles. "I always ring up first and say we're having guests for dinner. Fortunately we've got a big house with an attic room so there's plenty of space."

Bridget finds the whole experience extremely rewarding and, with her Catholic background, says it's nice to know she's helped someone in their hour of need. But then she also has the knack of being able to talk to them on their level, because she, too, has experienced much of what they are going through.

"I think it means a great deal to them (the youngsters) when you think the other option is just a guest house where there's no support or staying on the streets," she says.

"I think somebody that age is very vulnerable and they do need that support. Because I've been there myself I know there's nothing worse for them than to be put in a nasty house like I was where there's no support and nobody to look out for you. Especially when you have problems.

"People probably think of homelessness being something which happens in London and the big cities - but it can happen anywhere."

* To volunteer as a host contact Stop2Night on (01325) 382737. The charity is also looking for people to help man the phones.