New Government figures reveal that 56,210 households are currently classified as homeless across the UK– a rise of nine per cent from the previous year. But charities fear the scale of the problem could be even bleaker than the official statistics indicate. Shelter believes there are many more people who have not come to the attention of local authorities - the ‘hidden homeless'.
One family has decided to take matters into their own hands by inviting homeless people to stay in their sprawling farmhouse in Hertfordshire. This is their story:
Scott and Maria Albrecht have taken in 250 homeless people over seven years.
The couple live on a rented farm with their two youngest children, aged 19 and 16. Sharing living space with them at present are 18 homeless women and children and a few volunteers who lend a hand managing the house and land.
It’s a busy household with two main buildings, a total of 13 bedrooms and four bathrooms, but they’ve become used to sharing their home with strangers.
"We’ve been taking people in since the 1980s," explains Scott, who is originally from America. "The first was a woman in America who was sexually abused by her father. She had taken her little girl and left him with the intention of sleeping in her car. She had no place to stay, so we invited her to come and stay with us."
The couple moved to the UK permanently in 1992 and set up home in St Albans. They began inviting homeless people they found on the streets to stay in their flat – but felt they weren’t doing enough.
"I became tired of taking people in on an ad-hoc basis and wanted to do something more profound and deeper which had a greater impact on my life," says Scott.
They moved to the farm located near Watford seven years ago which gave them the space to accommodate more people and land to grow fruit and vegetables.
Scott, a father of four, says: "We felt that if we could come up with the rent money each month, we could do something really wonderful and change people’s lives."
Now all their guests are women and children, of all nationalities, referred by the British Red Cross, refugee agencies or other organisations. Scott admits they don’t take in men, partly because as a family they feel safer and also because the homeless women and children feel vulnerable and often don’t want to live with men.
Scott says: "We felt that women and children were the most vulnerable group and we just didn’t want to put our children in a vulnerable position, especially when they were younger, where there might be any kind of abuse in any way." He explains that some of the women who arrive at the farm have been raped so they preferred not to live with men.
Scott says his own children have always been aware that their lifestyle is unconventional but they see the value of what the family is doing. "The children are very normal. When they were younger though it was hard as other parents sometimes wouldn’t let their kids come over.
"I remember when my youngest was in year six and asked a friend ‘do you want to come to my house?’ his mum said ‘you can’t go there – they live with refugees.’ But the kids think what we’re doing is really important."
With so many people sharing facilities they’ve had to establish some household rules. Once a week each homeless guest has to cook and clean for the day. They’re not allowed drugs or alcohol and have to live peacefully with each other.
“We have a points system," says Scott. “If people break the rules more than three or four times, they’re asked to leave. We’ve had to ask maybe five women to leave. We’re quite tolerant but we won’t tolerate abuse – physical violence, verbal violence or threats.
"We have a very peaceful environment here. The ethos itself is quite conducive to community, family, friendship, joy and peace. On occasions we have felt a bit of a safety issue but we’ve learned to respond quite quickly.”
Scott says they see warning signs that all is not well before an incident occurs. A guest might start interacting with others differently or alter their behaviour.
Scott also ensures they take each person's history when they arrive, including any mental health or medical problem which requires regular medication. "If someone is too aggressive we call the police immediately," he says.
The family puts a lot of trust in the people who stay. Scott reveals small items such as DVDs have been stolen in the past but nothing more than that.During the day the homeless women get involved with artwork and crafts, the family and volunteers help them with any paperwork such as asylum applications and they can take part in therapy with a psychotherapist who helps out on a voluntary basis.
Scott says arguments do happen 'but nothing worse than what would happen in a secondary school'. He says: "We’ve never had to break up a fist fight."
Feeding so many people is a mission and with a hefty rent to pay, the farm does struggle financially. Without any support from the Government, it relies on donations from the public to pay outgoings of £70,000 a year.
The volunteers sell homemade jam and bread donated by a bakery to raise money and Scott confesses he goes ‘dumpster diving’ to gather more food.
He said: "You go to the back of supermarkets late at night with a torch and rubber gloves and go through bins. Each day they throw away loads of good food. We have been caught – the managers have come out and yelled at us. It’s quite humiliating." Food is also donated by sellers at a local wholesale market.
Despite the difficulties Scott has no doubt that what the family is doing is worthwhile and he'd love to see more people opening up their doors.
He added: "I ask people if they’re willing to do this, to take one person into their home if they have a spare room. But most people don’t really want to do it. They’re worried about people stealing things and sometimes that happens.
"It’s understandable if you feel you can’t do it yourself. People have difficulties in their lives, some people absolutely need privacy and some people have fear of other people. I don’t have huge privacy issues or fear of women and children.
"I say if you can’t do it then maybe you can support people who think they can."