Page last updated at 11:57 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 12:57 UK

Do teenage mothers deserve special homes?

Shanyda Kahn, 16, and son Shayaan

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Teenage single mothers will be sent to live in supervised homes rather than given council houses, says Gordon Brown. But is it a step back to times when unmarried mothers were sent away or a step forward?

Mixing among the young single mothers he is talking about, Darren Gleed is not sugar coating his words.

"It's not supposed to be too homely because we want them to move out," says the manager of Barking Foyer, which provides supervised accommodation for such youngsters.

"If we did everything for them they wouldn't want to go and it wouldn't teach them about real life."

These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly
Gordon Brown's conference speech
This is a re-announcement of a decade-old policy which Labour failed to deliver
Conservative Party response

The young women aren't allowed to decorate their small studio flats, not even stick posters on the wall. There are no communal areas for socialising and there are rules about people staying in their rooms. They also have to pay rent and electricity bills.

In return they get a place they can call their own, that is clean, warm and safe. They get support with anything from learning how to change a nappy to applying for university.

And most importantly for many, they learn how to build a new family and often rebuild relations with their old one.

When Gordon Brown told this week's Labour Party conference that, from now on, all 16 and 17-year-old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be placed in supervised homes, this is what he meant.

His critics were not overly impressed. The Conservatives decried it as a "recycled" policy which "was never delivered".

For some, the idea of forcing young mothers into "hostels" has the ring of Victorian values - like the Magdalene Asylums of 19th Century Britain and Ireland which sought to rehabilitate "fallen women".

Water mill

But the Barking Foyer couldn't be further from such institutions. A new, state-of-the-art, nine-storey building, it includes a residential wing with accommodation for 116 people, with 12 places are reserved exclusively for young parents.

Barking Foyer
Part of the 17.5m Barking Foyer

There is also office space, training suites and a roof garden. It would look more at home among the glistening towers of London's Canary Wharf than Essex.

Shanyda Khan is 16 and has a three-month-old son, Shayaan. She has been living in the nearby Redbridge Foyer for seven months after, she says, being ordered out of the family home when she got pregnant.

"I was scared when I mum told me to go, I'd never been alone before," she says. "But the Foyer staff are amazing. They've helped me be strong enough to deal with having my son. My support worker is like a mother to me. I'm now back at college doing my GCSEs and I want to go on to join the police."

She has the Foyer Federation to thank for her accommodation. Established in 1992, it has 130 homes around the country. They vary from a five-bedroom house in Cornwall to a converted water mill in Cambridgeshire.

The charity, funded by grants, rents and donations, not only provides accommodation for homeless young people from 16 to 25, but crucially helps get them into full-time training, education or work.

An estimated 10,000 are helped each year. More than 70% who go through the Foyer system leave with what the federation calls a "positive outcome", be that a job, college place or reconciled and moving back with their family.

Council house keys

Many of the Foyers provide accommodation for young parents. It's much-needed, with the UK having the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in Europe. In England, there were 41.9 conceptions per 1,000 15 to 17-year-olds in 2007. Levels in Scotland are almost the same.

Studio flat at Barking Foyer
Accommodation is clean and safe... and for two years only

But even if Gordon Brown's pledge comes off, it would be wrong to expect that all homes he envisages would look like the Barking model. Mr Brown promised to invest £30m in such projects over the next three years, buying 500 new places.

Yet this centre alone cost £17.5m.

And not everyone is convinced by the idea of packing young mums off to sheltered accommodation.

Dr Lisa Arai, an expert on the social needs of young people, says Mr Brown's blanket approach raises some concerns.

"It isn't a bad thing to offer people choice," says Dr Arai, author if Teenage Pregnancy: The Making and Unmaking of a Problem. "But the compulsory element worries me. It might not be appropriate for some young women."

Sticking up for the rights of young, unmarried mothers is something of a thankless task these days. A popular complaint is that they get too much and expect the keys to a council house to be delivered along with their baby.

But staff at Barking Foyer say the young parents it helps are not looking to get something for nothing. In fact they can't. Its job isn't to spoon feed them - it's a "something for something" deal.

Along with a tenancy agreement, which is for a maximum of two years, residents have to sign a contract to work with support staff on achieving an individually drawn-up development plan. If they break it they're evicted. Few do.

University drop-out

Training suites, such as a digital media training centre, are among the range of facilities on offer. But it's about life skills as well as qualifications, things like cooking and childcare. Peer mentoring schemes are also in place for youngsters to support each other.

Computer room in Barking Foyer
IT skills are taught with a state-of-the-art technology

There's also a health and wellbeing centre on site and an advice and guidance centre run by the local authority. All the facilities are also open to local youngsters who aren't residents. The aim is to be at the heart of the community, not separated and excluded from it.

At the Foyers everything always comes back to getting the youngster to live independently and not giving them unrealistic expectations of life on their own.

They are charged rent which is paid for directly out of their own pockets if they are working, which 27% of Barking Foyer's residents are. At £104 a week it's affordable but competitive.

A creche is available for courses run on site, but if residents work or study elsewhere they have to sort out childcare, just like they'll have to when they move on.

Young parents are some of the most motivated residents, say staff. Giving help to access what they need is the key, not judging them or saying those in charge know best.

"We don't view these young parents as having made a mistake," Andy Palmer, head of Foyer services in the local region. "We're not judging them or telling them what to do. They come in with a set of circumstances and we help them decide if they want to move on.

"It's about getting them to explore their aspirations and bring down the barriers there are to achieving them."

Performing arts student Keni, 22, who does not want to give her real name, has lived at Barking Foyer for six months and has a 11-month-old son. Already at university, she had to drop out when her relationship with her family broke down and she was left homeless with her baby.

"For me the issue wasn't a lack of education, I'd always done well at school," she says. "People can find themselves in difficult situations for so many reasons.

"For me it was family issues. I am very focused, determined and ambitious but that doesn't mean I don't need support, I do to deal with emotional issues in my life."

Living at the Foyer has enabled her to go back to university. She feels lucky to have such support but is looking forward to moving on.

"It doesn't totally feel like home," she says. "I want my own place so I can decorate it how I want, really make it mine."

And for her fellow resident Shanyda, living in such a home has given her hopes and ambitions for her and her son's future.

"It's changed me a lot," she says. "I had to do that for my baby and with the help I'm getting I've done it. I've fixed myself up."

Below is a selection of your comments.

These young girls do not and will never pay their own way. the tax payer should not be left to foot the bill. They should live in supervised homes in the cheapest possible way, and if they don't like it, they know where the door is. I say Gordon Brown should push things even further and make them pay the costs back when, errr sorry, if they ever get a job!!!!!
Mark Carmody, Sunderland

I have a 10-and-half-month old baby and I cant even get put into a mother and baby unit, let alone get my own flat. My parents want me out by the end of the month and the council's homeless team reckon I've made myself homeless. Yet the same council have given someone I know of a two-bed brand new house and she hasn't even had her baby yet, or been on the waiting list six months. I've been on it over a year and still got nothing. How is this fair?
S, Birmingham

Several years ago a young relative of ours was about to be made homeless because his living arrangements, with another family member had broken down. I heard about the Foyer Project, and we went to look around. The young relative agreed to apply for a place. There were strict criteria and he had to make an effort in order to fulfil them. We went with him the day he moved in, and heard all the rules he had to agree to. We did wonder how long he would last in there. In fact, he lasted 2 years, he matured, he learnt to do all things he should have been doing by his age, and was holding down a job in place he was respected and well liked. We cannot thank the Foyer he was in enough. Without them, he would be in prison or on the streets.
CP, Northern England

Great idea! The current system obviously isn't working and even acts as an incentive for young women to get pregnant. Of course we need to protect young women and their children but we are doing them no favours by sticking them in grotty council flats and condemning them to a life lived on handouts from the taxpayer. Hopefully the new scheme will encourage girls to aspire to more than collecting their benefits and give their children a better start in life.
Karen, London

There is no mention of the young fathers involved. Has Gordon Brown mentioned facilities for the couples to learn to raise their child together if they wish or is this just a separate provision for young single mums? Or is the assumption that the father will be absent? Sometimes it seems that society expectations dictate what happens by not helping to create the necessary circumstances for a fledgling family thus almost forcing through a single parent situation. By assuming that young fathers do not wish to be involved, their involvement is already severely limited.
Beth, Newcastle

(The scheme in question does work with young fathers. If they are part of their child's life they are allowed to stay over three times a week. They can also use all the facilities.)

We've been here before. Very, very careful consideration needs to be given in situating these hostels. They just become magnets for men looking for casual sex knowing some girls are skint and easy pickings. Young louts also target the hostels and make life hell for the neighbours.
Tuf Luv, DSS Ghetto

In principle, the idea of shared, supportive housing is a good one. But some aspects of this place concern me. Why are the residents not allowed to put posters on their walls? Why are they not given common areas for socialising? These are girls who have made a mistake and refused to take the easy way out, not criminals (and in any event prisons DO have common social areas!!)
Paul G, Derby

I was in a 'mother and baby' home for some months - not as a teenager, and through no fault of my own. Putting teenage mothers together in one of these places and expecting it to help with the upbringing of the children is ridiculous! There was bickering, fighting, stealing and even physical violence. Post was stolen, visitors were subject to items being dropped on them from upper windows, the shared kitchen was a joke with regard to corporate sharing and there was no form of order in place by the live-in couple who ran the place. The children did not learn anything other than how to put self first and that often resulted in yet more stealth and violence. If we want to teach teenagers how to become parents we need to lead the way by example. It they do not have a suitable role model in their family, then we should give them one by way of neighbours. What a shame we no longer have the extended families who can help and instruct, and that our children are not taught the wisdom of listening to and learning from our elders.
Helen, Devon

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