In almost every sense Sarah is an ordinary young woman. Where Sarah’s story becomes extra-ordinary is in the experience she has had of being homeless. Sarah was 17 when she first came to Gloucestershire Nightstop.
(Name and photo changed to protect anonymity.)
My journey through Nightstop Part 1: Life before Nightstop
I think my home life was probably like most others. I lived with my mum, my sisters and my stepdad. Things weren’t always great but I didn’t think they were that bad. I thought it was the same kind of stuff that other people my age were going through. Me and my mum and stepdad would argue over all sorts of things. A lot of the arguments were stupid but it was hard not to bite and get involved. Although the arguments passed I don’t think things ever really settled. Things were often uncomfortable and as the eldest I seemed to be the one in the firing line. Quite often I felt like I was getting the blame for things that had nothing to do with me.
One day things blew up completely. Another small argument turned into a big one and my mum and stepdad both told me I would have to go. They wouldn’t change their minds.
I didn’t know what to do and I was really worried. I didn’t have any friends who could help and none of my other family wanted to get involved. I was angry and scared at the same time.
As I couldn’t think of anyone else to talk to I went to see my tutor at college. She listened to me and told me that that the best thing was to go and see my social worker in the Post 16 Team as I was still only 17. The Social Worker, Anna, told me they would try and help but this might take time. She said that Gloucestershire Nightstop might be able to help in the short term, explaining that they have places in peoples’ homes for young people in my situation.
I was a bit wary but didn’t feel like I had any choice. I wasn’t sure how helpful they would be and how comfortable it would be.The social worker told me that Gloucestershire Nightstop had found a place for me with a family in Gloucester. I was pleased that it would be in my area but still nervous about the idea of staying with strangers. The social worker told me that before going to the house I would need to go with her to meet the staff at the Gloucestershire Nightstop office.
The Nightstop office was only a short walk away and I wondered what kind of welcome I would get. The office was warm and the staff seemed pleased to meet me making me feel very welcome. There was lots of smiling going on and they made me a cup of tea. This helped me to relax a little bit. The staff answered my questions and gave me some useful information about being on Nightstop. They also told me about the family that I would be staying with. They sounded really nice and although I was still really nervous I was looking forward to meeting them (and their dogs).
After half an hour of chatting, it was time to leave. My social worker was going to take me to the hosts’ home. Suddenly I felt a small rush of nerves. It had already been a really long day and it wasn’t over yet. I was really worried that I wouldn’t fit in, just like in my own family.
My Journey through Nightstop Part 2: Life on Nightstop
‘My Social Worker, Anna, took me to the family’s house in her car. I was nervous going to the house to meet them for the first time. When we stopped outside, I tried to pull myself together and told myself to keep calm and try and act normal. The Nightstop staff had told me that the family had had lots of young people to stay with them and were used to having young people on Nightstop. While they might be used to it, I wasn’t. I still felt on edge.
We knocked on the door and it was opened by a woman. She said hello with a really big smile and asked us in. She told me her name was Becky. I remember thinking how nice she seemed. When I got into the house I met the dogs. It was more like they met me really and they came sniffing around, wagging their tails and looking for attention. I like dogs and these two definitely wanted to be friends. Once I and the dogs had done our introductions I got to meet the dad, Kevin, and Phoebe, their daughter. They all made me feel welcome.
The social worker told the family a little bit about what was going on with me and what she was going to do for me. After twenty minutes it was time for the social worker to go. For the first time I was alone with the family and no one else. I was worried that we would have nothing to talk about and it would be awkward. They showed me around the house and showed me the room I would be using. Then we talked about dinner. Dinner was good: we had shepherd’s pie and after a long day it filled a big hole. We also had a chance to talk and I found out a bit about what they like doing, how the house runs and the sort of things we might do. By the end of dinner I had a full stomach and had started to think that things were finally going in the right direction.
In all I spent three weeks with the family. From a nervous start I soon became very comfortable being around the house and enjoyed spending time with the family. I was surprised to find that we had a lot of things in common. Kevin seemed to know a lot about some of the stuff that I am interested in and Phoebe was not much younger than me so it was easy enough to get on. While I was with them we did loads of stuff, including going out to Bristol, down the sailing club and watching DVDs. It didn’t feel like they were trying to be nice to me and it didn’t feel like they were making any special effort for me. It did feel like they were taking me for who I am and accepting me into their house without judging me: they made me feel involved, like I was part of the family. We had lots to talk about and I enjoyed listening to their stories, as they put a smile on my face. That was the best bit.
For the first time in a long time I wasn’t upsetting anyone.
While I was with the family, I still saw the staff at the Nightstop office. They helped me with loads of stuff. I did some cooking with Sue. We made cakes and shepherd’s pie. It was a big one so the staff at the office helped me eat it. They said it was nice but I suppose they had to (ha ha). I also did some work on laundry and personal care and spent a lot of time talking to Tony, the social work student. I began to build a good relationship with everyone there. There was always someone to talk to and they never judged me.
Before I felt that no one wanted to help me and no one cared but being on Nightstop made me realise that there are people who care and want to help. My trust in people was beginning to get a lot better. I was feeling less stressed and feeling part of a family helped my mental well-being.
After three weeks of being with the family my social worker told me that she had found a place for me to stay which would be my new home. I hadn’t been staying with the Willcoxes that long, but I had become comfortable with them. Now I was on the move again and feeling a bit unsure.
It was time to leave Kevin and Becky and start my next journey. I felt like I was starting again with new people, but it wasn’t as bad this time. I think being on Nightstop got me used to being with new people. I hoped it would be like staying with the Willcox family. I had mixed emotions. It was going to be sad to leave Nightstop but I was also happy to be heading somewhere where I could settle down and get on with my life.
At leaving time we all had hugs and I could see that Becky was a bit teary which was nice in a funny way. Phoebe came down out of her room to say goodbye. It made me feel good to know that I was liked and would be missed.
My journey through Nightstop Part 3: Life after Nightstop
Anna drove me to the foster carer who was called Judy. It was lovely to meet her and she gave me a really warm welcome. While it was good, I didn’t cope too well for the first week or so. I found it hard leaving and starting again and became quite low. I withdrew into myself and didn’t feel like talking to anyone. After a while I began to feel more at home and started to enjoy being at Judy’s. Her son lives with her and we got on quite well and he was easy to talk to. I also met Judy’s ex-husband, who I get on ok with too. Best of all I started to bond with Judy. She has made me feel like it is my home and we have developed a good relationship over the time that I have been there.
All the while I have been able to carry on with my bricklaying course and that is going really well.
During my stay with Judy I turned 18. Normally fostering placements come to an end at 18 and I was going to have to move on again. Anna said she would look into it for me and said that it might be possible for me stay there under a ‘staying put’ arrangement. As this meant I wouldn’t have to move again and could carry on with college, this was definitely a good thing. In the end Anna was able to arrange this and I was able to stay. I am still living with Judy almost six months later.
While this has been going on Judy has taken on another foster child, who is a bit younger than me. Because of her age she needs a lot more attention than I do and we don’t always get on. With the new foster child in the house, things have changed a bit. The atmosphere around the house has been difficult at times and there have been a few arguments. It’s only small stuff and thankfully not like it was when I was at home. What has been brilliant is that I have been able to talk to Judy about my feelings and she has listened. Together we have been able to sort things out and come to a better understanding of each other. In a funny way it has been good to have problems. It has shown me that by talking and by listening things can be solved and get better.
My relationship with my mum and stepdad hasn’t improved. When I think about it, it still makes me angry. I’m not sure if things will ever be right between us, but I am trying to keep an open mind on it and not rule it out.
I have recently been put in touch with my real dad after a phone call from a social worker telling me he was keen to have contact. I was given his number and we spoke for 3½ hours on the phone. This was our first conversation in around 10 years and I think my dad was as excited as me to finally talk. He kept saying “I can’t believe I am talking to you!” We have arranged for me to go and stay with him this weekend. He lives a long way away but I can’t wait.
While my journey is not over I have already learned loads of stuff.
I have learned that there are nice people around, and if you trust them, they will help you. I learned this by meeting my social worker, the staff at Gloucestershire Nightstop and the Willcox family. I am still in touch with all of them and we talk regularly. I go to the Nightstop office every week and they always have time for me and never seem to judge. I know that I can always come here and laugh and smile and be open and not worry about being criticised and judged. I think Nightstop is amazing and is one of the best ideas ever invented.
Judy has been really supportive and willing to listen and is really honest with me, which I sometimes need. Together we are still working things out but it feels like we are getting there. I feel like I have ended up in the right place at the right time.
I have learned that it is ok to ask for help and that a little help can go a long way. I have also learned that it is ok to make mistakes. The support I have had has made a massive difference to me over the last 8 months. Being able to talk has been brilliant. At times I have felt that I am the only one going through what I have been through. Talking has helped me to understand that others face the same challenges, think the same thoughts and feel the same way I have done at times and that that is ok.
I have learned that there is no magic wand for life. I am still very young and have got a lot of challenges ahead and I know that sometimes things will be hard and things will go wrong. I know that, while I will get help, I am the one who has to put the effort in and I can’t expect to get anywhere without trying. I hope that I do my best, continue doing my course and try to make the right choices and take the right action when the time comes.
Most of all I have learned to like myself.