A TV star from York who had to leave home at 16 returned to the city last week to work with young people facing homelessness as she prepares to showcase a new play

BBC’s ‘Line of Duty’ and ‘In the Club’ actress Taj Atwal, who attended York College, has been working with young people who are currently being supported by the youth homelessness charity SASH (Safe and Sound Homes), as part of research for a play she is writing about her own experiences of homelessness. She too was supported by SASH over a decade ago before starting on the path to become an actress.

SASH helps 16-25 year olds avoid homelessness across York and North Yorkshire, by offering a place to stay in the homes of volunteer hosts, keeping them safe at a time of crisis. The charity provides an emergency Nightstop service as well as longer-term Supported Lodgings accommodation of up to two years, all of which is delivered by volunteer hosts who give up a spare room in their homes for the young people to stay.

Miss Atwal had to leave home at sixteen and lived with SASH volunteer ‘hosts’ for two years until she left York to go to the Guildford School of Acting.

She is now writing a play, Paradise Fields, based on her own story about a teenager who could not live at home. The play is to raise awareness of the plight of 16-25 year olds who are experiencing homelessness through no fault of their own and show that they too can succeed at what they want to do, despite their circumstances. Miss Atwal was keen to have input on the script from young people who are in a similar situation today and so SASH arranged a drama workshop with four young people who are all currently living with volunteer hosts in SASH’s Supported Lodgings scheme, just as she did.

She said: “When I left home, my best friend at the time was also in SASH. The play is based on the experiences of those two girls, what they go on to achieve, their highs and lows, the fun, the upsets. It’s a coming of age story, about what you have to go through when you can’t live at home and how quickly you’ve got to become an adult, when all you want to do is just be a 16 or 17 year old.

“As you’re walking about in York, you think how beautiful it is, but if you peel back the layers, there is suffering within these young people. Through the play I want to get rid of this misconception that many people have of what it’s like to be homeless. I want to make people aware that homelessness doesn’t just mean a sleeping bag on the street. I am trying to give an insight of what it’s like to be 16-25 if you have to leave home and you do not have the support of something like SASH, how fine the line is between ending up on the streets.

“The support I got from SASH was amazing -just to have that step up before full independence, to have that support. I’m still close to my hosts. They come to every performance I’m in!”

Those taking part in the workshop really valued the experience of working with someone who had been in their position and understood what they were going through.

Ryan, 18, said: “It really helped me get a lot out that I haven’t said before. Overall it was just an amazing experience."

SASH currently has around 90 hosts across North and East Yorkshire however urgently needs more.

Operations Manager, Adele Coupe, said: “Our hosts are wonderful people and Taj’s story is testament to the impact that they can have on a young person at a time of great need. SASH is currently seeking to recruit more hosts to help meet demand for its services. They are people of all ages and different life stages. Hosting with SASH can be flexible around your existing commitments and we provide full training, ongoing support as well as small financial benefits. If you have a spare room and would like to help, please do get in touch.”

The next step for Paradise Fields will be a reading at the Manchester Royal Exchange in September, to which the young people will be invited, and at the High Tide Festival in Aldeburgh, after which the play will go on tour.

To find out more about becoming a volunteer host with SASH you can visit www.sash-uk.org.uk/