Meet one of the selfless hosts sharing their Black Country home as safe haven for vulnerable people
In the build-up to the Black Country YMCA's Host Appreciation and Young People Awards on Friday in Wolverhampton, the latest in a series of features on the work of the charity across the region looks at its programme which offers vulnerable young people safe accommodation with host families.
Robert Bates from Wolverhampton was a successful businessman who travelled the world in his career selling furniture.
But now aged 74, the committed Christian, who has had an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican, is carrying on in retirement the volunteering and vocational work he has always seen as a natural thing.
Robert is a host as part of the YMCA's Open Door Supported Lodgings programme and has been for six years.
The programme supports people aged from 16-21 who need a place to stay and sees them and the volunteer hosts get a package of support, both financially and otherwise, with regular visits from a case worker to see how both parties are getting on.
Robert and Ryan Witton, aged 21, have lived under the same roof of his three-bed terraced house in Upper Penn for two and a half years.
The arrangement has worked so well, his lodger has now become a full tenant out from under the umbrella of the YMCA - though advice, guidance and support is still available.
As well as Ryan, Robert has a teenager under his wing as part of the night and day programme which allows a youngster to have a 'safe haven', a place to come home to and food and lodging on a temporary basis until the YMCA can find them a more permanent place to stay.
Robert said: "I have two rooms to spare and want to put them to good use, that has always been the case. I have welcomed a number of youngsters from the programme and before that four years for the Good Shepherd in Wolverhampton including lads from Ethiopia, Iraq and other countries.
"Ryan and me have got on well and we also have a teenage lad from the night and day programme who is at college three days a week and has the freedom to come and go but always knows he has that roof over his head.
"I like to treat them as a family and see myself as someone who can help them rather than just be a landlord. I try to play an active part in getting them ready for independent living.
"I see myself as their guardian or mentor if you like and try to help them out with things such as budgeting and life skills.
"I can be quite rigid with rules such as curfews, cleaning, helping out with household jobs but I think they sometimes need that and in this case it has worked out well - and Ryan even does most of the cooking!"
"Don't get me wrong, it isn't all plain sailing, we have disagreements - but anyone under this roof is part of the family and the fact Robert is still here after so long and now has a tenancy agreement fills me with encouragement.
"It hasn't always been the case with all the people here previously, there have been difficulties in the past but I think it comes with the territory because if someone hasn't been cared for throughout their life they are potentially going to have difficulty understanding what you are trying to do for them."
Robert met the Pope as part of his ten years volunteering in taking disabled people on pilgrimages to Lourdes and has been a street pastor in Wolverhampton, worked at Broad Street homeless shelter, volunteered for the Samaritans visiting category C prisoners and has completed 25 years of ward visiting with Compton Hospice.
He says he sees helping people as his vocation and would recommend the YMCA programme for anyone who has a spare room and wants to help out a vulnerable or needy youngster because of the support the organisation provides.
"You have the professional backing so if you do encounter any problems or need any help it is there for you - and you do need that at times as a fail-safe or just for advice, or to act as a go-between," he said.
Mandeep Hare, the YMCA Black Country's host co-ordinator, said there is a full support package in place for host families and they welcome applications from single people, couples and all members of the community.
She said: "We have young people through our doors all the time and we need hosts for them, it could be anyone who has the space or a spare room and is willing to take someone in.
" The whole process of becoming a host is looked after by us in terms of paperwork, background checks and matching them with someone suitable – in the meantime the young person will be in the night stop programme until they find a more permanent solution. The work and support is permanently ongoing.
"Then when they are matched, the support workers check in with the young person every week to make sure it is going to plan and with the host at least every two weeks – the support is always there from us."
For more information on the Open Door or Nightstop programme contact the team at email@example.com or 0121 524 1957.