Drum and bass, not disco, at the YMCA!

DON'T mention the 1970s disco hit YMCA to Angela Sarkis. The YMCA's new national secretary hates it - although she softens that confession with a hearty laugh.

DON'T mention the 1970s disco hit YMCA to Angela Sarkis. The YMCA's new national secretary hates it - although she softens that confession with a hearty laugh.

The catchy song by the Village People did at least lodge forever the name of the charity in the public conscientiousness. But it was also nearly 30 years ago.

The first woman to hold the top job in the organisation's 160-year history admits the charity has something of an image problem. She said recently: “We need to get the branding right. In a short time I want the YMCA to be widely recognised as a modern and progressive service charity that is pushing the youth agenda forward in a way we have all so far failed to do.”

So, what is it all about and what does it do? The full title is a bit misleading, for instance, as the Young Men's Christian Association helps residents regardless of race, ethnicity, faith or absence of one, sexuality or gender.

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Many folk will be surprised to learn that the 150 or so local YMCA associations are separate charities run by their own boards. They sit together under the umbrella of YMCA England, so national standards can be applied and effective ways of working shared.

The main priority is to offer safe accommodation to homeless young people, helping them develop their full potential and stand on their own two feet.

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Ipswich YMCA was formed on August 15, 1873, and today occupies the corner of Norwich Road and Wellington Street. Twenty years ago it developed the site significantly, with the help of Housing Corporation and borough council money. It now offers supported accommodation for 105 young, single people who would otherwise be homeless ­- in 64 one-person studio flats and 41 other bedrooms.

“Young” means between the ages of 16 and 35, though the limits are sometimes blurred; the charity is not going to throw someone out on the streets on the day they celebrate their 35th birthday.

The idea is to provide a temporary roof over the head that stops people having to live in bed-and-breakfast accommodation or very short-term housing. With a bit of breathing space, it's hoped residents will be able to get their life on a more secure footing.

Ipswich YMCA's 52 full and part-time staff include specialists who can help with life skills, and care and resettlement. Each resident has a key worker to help plot a path forward. There are sessions run on subjects such as English as a second language, budgeting and cooking.

In Ipswich, the YMCA aims to forge links with the general population as well as providing supported housing. There's a licensed bar people can use, a restaurant, a well-equipped fitness studio, and a sports hall recently improved with some funding from the Sports Council via The Badminton Association. It hosts badminton from junior to county level, and five-a-side football. There's a strong weekly club for the over-50s club, and a learning disabilities club funded partly by the county council.

All in all, there are about 600 members who use the building for activities unrelated to housing.

Until last year there was also a very successful after-school club and summer holiday playscheme. But more schools launched their own facilities and the competition hit the YMCA badly, leading to a financial loss of more than £20,000.

Ipswich YMCA is a registered charity, a limited company, and a registered social landlord, and has a turnover of about £1.25 million.

Chief executive Mike Fisher, a former military policeman who came to Suffolk about 15 years ago, laughs that the local board has a lot of people to keep happy: Companies House, the Charity Commission and the Housing Corporation - not to mention the VAT man.

Money comes via housing benefit, and there's cash from Supporting People - a Government programme helping vulnerable people live more independently. There's £10,000 from the county council, “and other than that we're self-financing”.

Spare rooms are currently being transformed into new facilities for residents: a bigger TV lounge, as the current one in the hostel is tiny, and games facilities. Mike's hoping to get funding for an internet café.

It's harder to attract cash for the non-housing activities, says Mike. People might look at the balance sheet and think Ipswich YMCA has got a lot of money, but the vast bulk of its income flows from its role as an accommodation provider.

Last year about 200 residents passed through the door; most staying between five weeks and two years. They are single, or from a broken relationship. Most contact the YMCA themselves; some are sent by the probation service, occasionally via the prison service, or are nominated by the borough council. “You name a background for a young person who's homeless and we've probably had someone with that background - physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse . . . just not getting on at home. Parents have moved away . . .” explains Mike.

“Some work; most don't - but that's the way of the world at the moment. There's not much work available to young people. We get some good ones, some bad ones - a complete mixture. The trouble is, the public perceive us as being some sort of a doss house for winos and drop-outs. That's a real shame, because that's not what we're about at all.”

Fifteen or so years ago, Ipswich YMCA didn't have a very good name, he accepts. “There was a lot of trouble; some difficult young people living here and milling about outside. If the public see young people sitting on the wall outside, making a noise and drinking beer, then obviously that's not going to help with the perception that we want to give.”

Even though things have changed, it's sometimes difficult to overcome incorrect perceptions.

“If we were dealing with sick children, we wouldn't have a problem. Let's face it, all young people are difficult from time to time, or get a bit noisy or rowdy. It doesn't mean to say they're doing any real harm. But people have this perception: if they see a group of young people standing about somewhere, with their hoods up, and drinking cans of Coke, everyone immediately assumes they're drinking wine or strong cider, and causing trouble. And of course that's not the case at all.

“We do get some difficult ones here occasionally, and if they don't conform - if they're not prepared to fit in with the community here and the local community - then they don't stay here. It's as simple as that. If they go round upsetting the neighbours, or breaking into people's houses, then I don't want them.”

There are one or two residents on drug treatment programmes, “but not very many, because we're not a drug rehabilitation centre”.

Alcohol is banned from the hostel and flats, and residents are warned that anyone suspected of involvement in drug-related activities on YMCA property can be evicted without notice.

Mind you, as recent news reports have shown, banned substances are commonly found in the outside world. “I'm not saying you won't find drugs in the YMCA, but you'll really struggle to find them, because we have quite a stiff policy on bringing drugs into the building.”

Actually, breaking rules doesn't necessarily mean the end - as long as the breach isn't at the top end of the scale. Some residents return more than once, if they agree to keep the rules. Mike remembers

one young man who was back and forth about nine times!

Is the YMCA successful in its approach to helping people?

“The answer is yes. If we take last year, we had 141 young people left the organisation and 42 of them we would say we were unsuccessful with. The others went into permanent accommodation, left us for something better, or went back home or college. So we have more than a 65% success rate. I think that's pretty good.

“Let's face it; some of these young people have been failed by society for whatever reason . . . and they come along here and we're picking up the pieces in some cases. I'd love to have 100%, but that's unrealistic.”

Mike smiles when asked about the charity's profile. When he joined the organisation, people were talking about perhaps changing its name, but nothing's happened on that score. The YMCA abbreviation and logo does have the benefit of being widely recognised, he points out.

Locally, the perception of YMCA is not a huge handicap, but Mike would love more of the public to see the good work that's being done.

“I think what a lot of people haven't considered is: what happens if we're not here? There's 105 single young people living here; where would they go?”

FOR Alex Ford, due to give birth to a baby girl in a few weeks' time, the YMCA has proved a safety net.

The 23-year-old came to Ipswich from Exeter last November to be with her boyfriend, but “got dumped” not long after. She stayed with a work colleague. But, when her friend moved out, Alex was forced to look for a new home.

She was doing nightclub work, but renting her own place was out of the question. “There was no way I could have afforded a £300 deposit.” She's grateful the YMCA put a roof over her head as, otherwise, she'd have had nowhere to go.

Pregnancy has provided a few challenges, though. It took a while to realise she was entitled to free milk from the state, but the folk at the YMCA restaurant have been helpful in arranging a daily supply.

Alex isn't sure what the future holds, accommodation-wise, once she's had her baby, but has started to study childcare and education at Suffolk College.

If she had the power to impose changes, she'd make the YMCA housing complex a little quieter late at night.

“Being pregnant, I sometimes want to go to bed at nine o'clock because I'm tired. But often people are playing their music at night. If it's at 11pm, you don't really feel you can ask them to stop, because it's not that late, is it? But the walls are thin here, and you can hear almost everything.

“And why is it that everyone at the YMCA is into drum and bass? I hate drum and bass!”

Fellow resident Annabel Knight, 24, from Felixstowe, was living with her dad until about three months ago. Then he moved to a village that was a bit too quiet for her, and short on public transport. Annabel didn't want to be stuck there. The council suggested she try the YMCA.

Initially, she wasn't keen - because of rumours she'd heard. “The only impression I had of the YMCA is that it was really rough and there were loads of druggies. But it's not like that.”

There are occasional headaches, like too much noise at night, but she says of the YMCA generally: “If you try to help yourself, they will help you.”

Trevor Skoulding, 30, hails from Brandon. He used drugs from a young age, particularly heroin, and first came to Ipswich YMCA when he was 20. After “getting kicked out”, he ping-ponged between Salvation Army accommodation, further chances at Ipswich YMCA, and Norwich YMCA. There were also spells in Highpoint prison. It was there he managed to kick drugs, about five years ago.

He returned to the YMCA a couple of months ago, from the Salvation Army, and thanks to the organisation's help is about to start a voluntary role with the Iceni Project: a drug treatment centre in Ipswich - “trying to stop people doing what I did”.

The YMCA, he says, “has given me somewhere to live and to do something I wanted to. And you don't want to be looking at the walls for eight hours a day”. He says residents can't expect to have everything laid on a plate. “Sometimes you have to make the first step. You can't just sit and expect everyone to do everything for you.”

The YMCA movement works in more than 120 countries

The Young Men's Christian Association was formed in 1844 by George Williams in St Paul's churchyard in London, after a group of drapers' assistants got together, essentially for Bible study

The American YMCA movement was founded in 1851. It's said to have invented basketball and volleyball in the late 19th Century

In 1932 the YMCA helped combat rising unemployment. It launched British Boys for British Farms, which placed jobless young men on farms as agricultural workers, and an Employment Department, which found jobs for 38,000 former servicemen

In 1959, prompted by a Government report on the need for better leisure facilities for teenagers, many YMCAs started youth clubs

In England, the YMCA is the largest voluntary sector provider of:

supported accommodation for single men and women between 16 and 35, and services that promote physical activity and healthy living

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