'As a homeless teen, I had relationships with older men just to get off the streets'

‘I felt I was nothing. I would take whatever I could just to be warm and feel a bit safer.’

Adam Lusher
Saturday 04 February 2017 01:05
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Made homeless at the age of 16, ‘Melissa’ felt she had no option but to live with abusive, drink and drug-taking men.  PICTURE POSED BY A MODEL
Made homeless at the age of 16, ‘Melissa’ felt she had no option but to live with abusive, drink and drug-taking men. PICTURE POSED BY A MODEL

Melissa* first self-harmed at the age of eight – after her dad dragged her up the stairs by her hair. At 16 her mum told her: “You are not coming back to this house. We have changed the locks.” Now homeless, she thought she had no option but to live with abusive, drink and drug-taking men. But when she found Centrepoint, she resolved to turn her life around. This is her story:

That respectable terraced house in a northern town was a long way off now. No hope of returning to the middle class parents, to her brother and sister.

Aged 16 and alone, Melissa was facing the full force of homelessness. The stress of sofa surfing, of wondering which friend would let her stay on the couch, and for how long, was combining with her own mental health demons – the self-harm, the anorexia and bulimia.

“I didn’t think there was a way out,” she says. “I felt I was nothing, that I was never going to have a life.”

And so, matter-of-factly, Melissa – not her real name – recalls how she took what seemed to her the only option available.

“I would,” she says, “Just kind of get my way in with men, and live with them. I would take whatever I could, just to be warm and feel a bit safer.

“At the time, I convinced myself there was affection for the bloke. Looking back now, it was just more out of desperation. You just thought ‘Well I have no other option’.

“I think they knew that – so they felt they could do whatever they wanted.”

Calmly, with a world-weary toughness you wouldn’t normally expect from a 23-year-old, Melissa tells you about the first man.

She was 16. He was 28, and “absolutely vile”.

“He was a drug taker, he used to beat me, to steal from me – for drugs, for anything.”

The rented house this “boyfriend” shared with two other jobless drug takers was “very, very run-down – disgusting”.

Almost as if it were normal, she adds: “There were punch marks all over the walls.

“They would all get violent and punch things and fight all the time. The withdrawal from legal highs would make them violent. Alcohol was one of the main triggers. They would be fighting each other and whoever else.

“Everything in the house would be smashed to smithereens.”

Drugs were everywhere in the house. Under her so-called boyfriend’s influence, Melissa started taking ketamine and the then “legal high” mephedrone.

Only when the anorexia and bulimia got so bad that she was hospitalised did the “relationship” end. The eight-month stay in rehab, at the age of 17, did at least rid Melissa of her reliance on drugs – although it would be a long time before she could overcome her anorexia and bulimia.

Because Melissa’s problems didn’t start when she was 16.

That terraced house where she grew up offered outward respectability, and hidden turmoil.

Melissa recalls the first time she self-harmed.

“I was eight,” she says. “My dad had just dragged me up the stairs by my hair.

“I can’t remember why. It would have been for something trivial like not tidying up. He had a temper. I must have been quite easy to drag around.

“He threw me in my room. I remember picking up this ornament – a present from my brother. I just smashed it and drove it into my wrist.

“I felt helpless.”

She struggles to explain fully all the reasons behind the self-harming, and the eating disorders that followed from about the age of 13.

Even before her parents’ divorce, Melissa says, her home life had been chaotic.

“Mum was always out working. With my dad, I didn’t ever want to be in the house because he was really aggressive.

“I started hanging around with older people, smoking weed, drinking heavily – two big bottles of Lambrini a night.

“When I was 15, I read a letter from my dad to my mum saying he wanted me put in care, that I was a problem child. He would shout at me that the divorce was my fault.

“It was a lot to take.”

And then, in the summer of her first A-level year – when by her own admission her behaviour was out of control – Mum drove her to college, in stony silence.

“After she dropped me off, she sent a text: ‘You are not coming back to this house. We have changed the locks. If you try to get in, the Police will come’.”

“I was numb,” says Melissa. “I just thought, ‘Well, I am never going to have anything good happen to me’.”

At that point, she says, a homeless helpline, of the kind being campaigned for by The Independent and Centrepoint, could have made all the difference.

“Just someone to talk to, and tell you what help is out there,” explains Melissa. “That’s an alternative life someone is offering you. But if you don’t know what help there is, you can’t access it.

“I was totally alone. I thought I would just have to live life off other people’s sofas.”

“Sofa surfing,” she adds, “Makes you feel like a criminal.

“You feel your friend’s parents are thinking you must have done something wrong to be kicked out of your own home. You feel like you shouldn’t be in their house, because it’s not their burden.”

And so she turned to that first man. And then, after she came out of rehab, at the age of 18, there was another man – just as bad as the first.

“I suppose,” she says, “I thought that was the way I was supposed to be treated, that I deserved it: because I was a bad person, because I didn’t have a job and I had been kicked out by my mum.”

The second man, a 26-year-old heavy drinker, took her to another town, where she knew no-one.

“My key to the flat magically disappeared. When he went to work, he used to lock me in. My eating deteriorated.”

But even after another stay in hospital because of her eating disorders, she returned to him: “I had literally nowhere else to go.”

Melissa endured another three more months as a virtual prisoner of this “boyfriend”. By the end, her anorexia was completely out of control. When she was finally taken to hospital, Melissa says, she weighed four and a half stone: “The doctor said I might not live through the night.”

Yet even at this extreme, the cycle of abuse proved almost impossible to break.

“Breaking up with him,” admits Melissa, “Was the hardest decision, because I knew I would be homeless again if I did it. I really, really didn’t want to have to go through homelessness again, but it was either do it, or go back to him and die.

“That’s how desperate my options had become.”

Finally, fortune intervened: “A friend approached me and said ‘Let’s go to Centrepoint in Bradford’. They had to rebuild me,” says Melissa.

Although it’s also probably fair to say that after all she had suffered, Melissa was now pretty determined to help herself.

Every opportunity Centrepoint gave me,” she says, “I took. I said to myself: ‘I’m going to have to make this work. Because I have no other choice’.”

Centrepoint helped her rebuild her confidence through sporting activity, through participation in the charity’s youth parliament. She discovered “an amazing network of support”.

Melissa is now in her own rented flat. She no longer feels she is nothing. Rather, having done volunteer work with Centrepoint, she wants to make a career out of helping others by getting a full-time job with the charity.

“Centrepoint has given me everything,” she says. “They have given me my life back. I now have a career and a future ahead of me.

“In a very subtle way Centrepoint built my confidence back up. They helped me see the value in myself.”

Which may explain why for the last six months, there has been a real man in her life.

“He is absolutely lovely, with a full-time job, as a plumber,” Melissa adds.

And this time, she’s with him for all the right reasons: “He is incredibly supportive – loving, caring.”

*Melissa’s name has been changed to protect her identity

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