Housing

How advocacy saved one young girl from homelessness and exploitation

In a piece written exclusively for The Big Issue, Chase Parks* explains how her life spiralled into homelessness as a youngster and how she turned it around to help others with charity Coram Voice

silhouette woman molly belle unsplash

From a young age, my mum was my favourite person. But due to an illness, she favoured my sisters, and this showed in her behaviour towards me. I grew up angry and resentful and at the age of 15, after many turbulent years, my mother finally kicked me out and I became homeless.

I had no choice but to sofa-surf. Sometimes I would stay with friends who lived with their parents, other nights I stayed with friends who lived in their own in hostel rooms. On the nights when neither of these two options were available, I would sleep on night buses or in car parks.

I no longer had my school uniform and had to drop out of school half-way through year 10. I began shoplifting from supermarkets to get food, mainly sandwiches, but also bottles of wines. Drinking not only boosted my confidence with the older group of friends I now had – it also kept my anxiety pushed down.

Social services were not aware of my shoplifting, but they did know that I was no longer attending school, had no permanent home and was not keeping great company. Although my mum didn’t want me living with her, she wasn’t comfortable with me sleeping on the streets. She would contact the local authority regularly, asking them to provide me with accommodation.

The answer was always no. As I had ‘somewhere to sleep’ most nights, social services argued that it would not be appropriate to place me in care. They said it was too late, that I was too old, and that foster care would probably cause more distress even though I was resorting to sleeping in car parks. Though the relationship with my mum had broken down, social services insisted it was her responsibility to take care of me. The problem was, my mum thought it was theirs.

When it became clear, I would not be placed in care or be able to return to my mum’s house, I gave up. When a 22-year-old man who I’d met through a friend said I could live with him, I moved in straight away. The relief of having shelter and food that I didn’t have to steal overrode the feeling that he would potentially expect something from me in return. Back then, I didn’t know what grooming or sexual exploitation was. I only knew I was hungry and missed having a proper bed to sleep in. After growing dependant on him over the next few weeks, we began a relationship.

Social services were again made aware of this man’s age, and that I was potentially being exploited, but they stated they had no proof and therefore could not do anything. My mum was also told that as I was nearly 16, I would soon be of a legal age to make my own relationship choices.

When my older boyfriend went away for the week, a friend said I could stay with her until he came back. After a few days of having dinner with her parents, her mother slowly built a picture of my situation. The relationship with an older man, the shoplifting, the friends I had who would regularly fight with knives and sniff ketamine in front of me. Her mum couldn’t believe the vulnerable situation I was in and contacted the charity Jigsaw4u who put me in touch with an advocate.

It was only when my advocate Paul wrote six emails to social services, one letter to my local MP and took photographic evidence of the physical abuse I was suffering at the hands of my older boyfriend, that I was finally placed into foster care. Over the next two years, Paul became a regular presence in my life and attended meetings with me. Feeling like my views mattered and that I was having a say in my future boosted my confidence.

Advocacy saved me from homelessness and helped me to understand my rights in the care system. I feel passionate the need to stand up for the rights of children in care and I now advise the charity Coram Voice on their advocacy policy. Coram Voice also runs an annual creative writing competition, Voices, for children in care and care leavers, giving them a chance to showcase their talent and process their experiences of being in care. So many children in care feel unheard and misunderstood. It’s time to give them a platform to make their own voices heard.

Chase Parks*is an advisor to Coram Voice, a charity that champions the rights of children in care and care leavers. The Voices creative writing competition runs until 12 February, find out more here

*Names changed

Image: Molly Belle/Unsplash

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