"MOST people don't think young people could be homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in Fermanagh -- they just don't think that kind of thing could happen here." Those are the words of Participation Worker for Action for Children, Clare McClintock from Fermanagh.
Through her job, though, she sees all too often that the reality is somewhat different.
"Service users have said if they were asked the question: 'What would you have done without Action for Children?' their answer would have been 'I would be lost', 'I would be dead' or 'I would be in prison'. It's scary to think it, but that's the reality of it all," she says.
With offices in Enniskillen and Omagh, the voluntary service currently has a caseload of 42 young people, aged from 16 to 21, who are either homeless or at risk of becoming so.
And the number of referrals to the local Floating Support Service has steadily increased year on year since it was first introduced in 2006.
"More recently we have received a lot of self-referrals from young people themselves," she says, "There have been times when people come to us and say 'I have no where else to go'." Although the most shockingly visible form of homelessness is of someone 'sleeping rough', Clare is quick to point out that there are many other experiences too.
"Everyone has a stereotypical view of a homeless person being someone sleeping out on the streets with a bucket beside them to collect money -- but that's not always the case. Homelessness can be someone having no option but to crash on a friend's sofa -- this is still technically seen as homelessness. Just because you don't see them sitting in a door way doesn't mean they are not homeless." She experienced for herself just what it would be like to sleep rough in Belfast through a charity fundraising event for Action for Children last Friday night.
Held for the first time in Northern Ireland, Byte Night's fundraiser is aimed at raising as much money and awareness as possible to combat the problem of homelessness for young people across the UK.
But for Clare it was a stark insight into what some of the young service users she works with have sadly faced in the past.
"When we arrived in Belfast we were given cardboard boxes and waterproof bags for shelter for the night," she explains, "That really brought it home - this is what so many young people have to face.
"There are people who are homeless out there, and it is not just in Belfast. Friday night was so cold, I had a lot of layers on but I still felt it. It made me realise how someone who is homeless must feel -- they don't have the luxury of preparing ahead for a cold night.
"I was so tired the next morning and hungry but the thing is, I was going home and was able to have a shower. A homeless person has to sleep rough every night." According to Clare the typical stereotype, held by many, of a homeless person can sometimes prevent people from coming forward for help.
"They may have experienced temporary homelessness or they have been sleeping on their friend's sofa. They feel alone because they have lost their support network on a temporary basis -- it is very difficult and very daunting for them. And they are afraid of being stigmatised." Clare is the first Participation Worker for Action for Children in Northern Ireland.
She and the rest of the team on the Floating Support Service work with children aged 16 to 17 who are at risk of homelessness and care leavers aged from 18 to 21.
According to her one of the main reasons for young people being classed as 'homeless' is as a result of a family breakdown.
She says that in many cases, referrals are made through Social Services or the Housing Executive. "Our main aim is to reduce the level of homelessness. When a young person has had a breakdown in the family, we would act as a mediator to try to build that relationship up again. But in some cases, it has been assessed that it is just not safe for them to be at home.
"Through our team of five floating support workers and myself our aim is to find suitable and affordable accommodation in a community of the young person's choice.
"We promote independent living skills and support the young people though programmes such as the Barclays Money Skills programme and 'Key to the Door', accredited by the Open College network, which focuses on home matters -- simple things like eating well, how to shop for food, DIY.
"We also help service users with legal matters and develop their skills to be able to maintain tenancy. We help them to understand the cost of living independently.
"And on Saturdays we run activities to help decrease the feeling of isolation. If they are feeling down we have a bit of craic with them.
"We also give them the opportunity to have their voice heard," says Clare, "Quite often they have never had that opportunity before and that in itself can be quite empowering for them.
"We are the only Floating Support Service for young people aged 16 to 17 years olds. While a lot of other groups would work with people who are 18 years plus, in most cases they will be low risk young people. But what we have found is that it is often the high risk young people who need our help most -- high risk in that they could be a risk to themselves, they have suffered drug and/or alcohol misuse, are pregnant or are engaging in risky behaviour." Clare has appealed for those who haven't yet sought help to come forward.
"There is a lot of support available, and we are willing to help and do our best. People have a misconception that someone who is homeless is involved in trouble in some way. But I can't say anything but nice things about the service users we have. They are an amazing group of people and we are there for them, always.
"In times of crisis or need, they know they can pick up the phone and we will be there for them.
"We run a 24 hour service, so we are always there at the end of the phone. Our Floating Support Workers will go to the crises no matter what time of the day or night it is and we will even find emergency accommodation for that night if need's be," she adds.
For more information on Action for Children's local Floating Support Service, contact 028 8225 9495.