There are currently 86,000 young people in the care system. That number is rising. 86,000 different stories. Some maybe similar but they are all different. We have all been placed in this system because at some point something went wrong. Some of our stories have a good ending but this is not because of the system.
I am one of these 86,000 young people. I ran away from my abuser at the age of 16. After a month or two of sofa surfing and street homelessness, I was desperate. I went to my local authority emotionally and physically debilitated. Pleading with them. They didn’t help. They told me they could not support me, because I didn’t have my passport. They told me to go back to the prison that trapped my body, broken my soul and destroyed my mind. That day I left believing no one truly cared for me. No one would ever. If my father didn’t, why would they?
Eventually this burden became too much for me. I cracked and told my good friend I was homeless and, like good friends do she told her mother. The very next day her, her mother, and I went to the local authorities. This is time they did not turn me away. She fought for me. She fought for my survival. That same day they put me in a hostel. I’m not sure if it was any better than being on the streets. It was a room share with four other beds. Random men would walk in at night. Most nights I was scared for my life. But at least I was warm, right? Sadly, I am not the only minor they have placed in these conditions, I will not be the last. After a month they forced me to move back in with my father. Within the first hour of moving in, I knew I would be out again.
I ran away again. This time I found a charity that supported homeless gay teenagers, the Albert Kennedy Trust. They assured me they would help me. They made me feel safe in a world I thought despised me. It was the little things they did, that made me feel like I mattered, like asking me what area I would like to live in? If I would like to live with one supported lodger, or a couple? Hoping to find a family I choose a couple in Camden and that is exactly where they placed me. Today those supported lodgers are my foster parents.
The Albert Kennedy Trust and my now foster parents fought my local authority to make me a looked after child and we won. We won because I was suicidal. I had too many people fighting for me and they realised failure to protect me could result in my death. This was a risk they could not take.
If people outside the system had not fought the system designed to protect me I do not know where I would be now. Maybe, one of the care leavers that account for 25% of homelessness, maybe one of the 25% of care leavers that fill up prison cells, maybe hospitalised – 61% of care experienced people suffer from mental health problems. But I know where I am not and I know why.
For many of us, from the moment we enter the system to the day we leave, we will not truly get the support we need. Everyone in our lives are paid. We are a task to be completed. We are at the mercy of the service provider – if they are having a bad day they might say no. No to housing. No to travel. No to money. They might not have the energy to protect us when they have heard 10 similar stories that day. But every story matters. Every story is a life.
I stand in front of you not a box, not a word on a piece of paper, not a case. I stand in front of you as a human being, blood rushing through my veins, palms sweating, heart racing. I fear our system does not see me the same way you do.
Right now the system is broken. Each local authority has some discretion in how they choose to support us. The government gives them this power. Care leavers in Hackney do not receive the same support as care leavers in the borough of Waltham Forest. We call this the postcode lottery. The government is failing as our corporate parent, charities are having to take their place. However, Charities are limited in their resources – they do not have the means the government has. Charities try but their good is limited. So, who is then left to fights for us? You!
I am trying to fix that broken system. Through my work as a communications assistant with the charity Drive Forward Foundation I’ve spoken in Parliament offering my insights into the care experience to politicians – making sure I use my voice to cover my personal journey, but to also challenge any response by MPs. Using the experiences of other care leavers I know who are not in the position to speak for themselves. Today, I’m proud that I am in a place that enabled me to step up and use my voice to speak up for us; sharing who we are, why some of us behave the way we do, what our struggles are. It has become important to me that members of the public – you – know who we are. I’ve also just been filmed for BBC Three challenging perceptions on homelessness. I have found my voice.
There is a reason I am not just another statistic. Believe me I came close. I didn’t and this is not at because I am brighter, not because I’m stronger, more resilient, or better looking…okay maybe it’s because I’m better looking. It is because I was blessed. I had incredible people fighting for me, it is because of the unconditional love my foster parents have given me, my sister, the amazing opportunity the charity I work for has given me. It is because people cared to fight for the forgotten ones. I want everyone here to be informed and to be part of that fight.
I stand proud today using my voice to fight for my fellow looked after young people. I am a child of the state. I am your child. See me, see us. Acknowledged our pain and our cries for help, for love. We belong to you. We are everyone’s children.
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