As Birmingham youth homelessness charity St Basil's launches a Christmas fundraising drive through city restaurants, Birmingham Mail's MARY GRIFFIN hears from one former homeless teen who has now become a Birmingham city councillor
Councillor Sharon Thompson pictured at Birmingham Council House
Inspirational Sharon Thompson has had a remarkable journey.
Nineteen years ago she found herself homeless, forced to rely on a city charity to secure a roof over her head.
A mum-of-one and born survivor, she has risen to take a position on the board of directors of the homelessness charity that once provided accommodation for her when she was forced to leave home.
"I was only 16," she remembers, "I had just finished my GCSEs and was about to start college.
"It was pretty much a family breakdown. Home wasn't an option for me at that point - it just wasn't.
"I didn't have anywhere else to go so I stayed with my friend who was living in a flat.
"It was this little three-bed flat in Bordesley Green and living there was her, her partner, her brother, her two little boys and her new baby. And me.
"That was obviously very temporary because her family had needs."
Recalling the one night she was forced to sleep rough, Sharon remembers walking around Paradise Forum, too scared to sleep.
"It's cold and it's frightening," she says, "I was unnerved and spent the whole night feeling alone and isolated."
Sharon sought help from advice centre The Link who referred her to St Basil's, where she was given accommodation and a support programme offering practical help with life skills from budgeting to careers guidance.
"Everybody's journey is different," she says.
"There was a girl who was there at the same time as me and I've seen her selling the Big Issue now. That could have been me."
Instead, 35-year-old is a now a Labour councillor and since 2009 she has been a serving magistrate, sitting in court up to twice each month.
On November 28 she will relive her rough sleeping experience from a very different perspective, joining the Lord Mayor for St Basil's annual fundraising event, the Big Sleep Out.
She says: "I recently went back and spoke at the launch of St Basil's Youth Council. I didn't tell them I was an ex-resident so they just thought I was a visiting councillor until I told them 'I lived in exactly the same place you did'.
"While I was there I saw someone who was my key worker so many years ago, Shanti.
"Key workers like Shanti didn't just come in and do their nine-to-five.
"They were people you could look up to. They gave you direction and it was so personal.
"I remember her being frank, no-nonsense and straight-to-the-point, saying 'You need to fix up'.
"I wasn't a model resident - I really wasn't. I wasn't the one who towed the line and never broke a rule.
"But Shanti saw me and said 'This is your life. You can make something of it if you want to. The option to take is 'Yes'".
"That, for me, was a turning point. I realised that if people were willing to invest in my life I should do the same.
"I changed my victim mindset and realised the world doesn't owe me an arm and a leg.'"
Sharon started volunteering before securing a job with a housing association.
Sharon is now using her own story to inspire others and to change people’s perceptions about homelessness.
She says: "I know a lot of people who were in the hostel when I was there and have gone on to do great things - working in business, music production, criminology, etc. - and I also know people who've gone on to do not-so-great things.
"Part of it is down to your mindset but some of it is just down to your opportunities.
"St Basil's are able to offer a lot of things and it comes down to how you utilise those things to help you move forward in life – how you receive the advice you're given and how you put it into action.
"There's a stigma around young people and homelessness but as a society if we can invest in them they can overcome.
"We can show them they don't have to be a victim of life's issues. They can be victorious.
"It's about breaking the stereotype, looking back on the past and saying 'If I can do it, you can too'
"People invested in me as an individual and that put me on the right footing to move forward.
"I still acknowledge that people who inspired me in the beginning and helped me to develop the life skills to get to the stage I'm at."
She adds: "A lot of people like to support charities like St Basil's for the feelgood factor of giving a tenner, but what about the man you just walked past who asked you for 50p because he's actually destitute?
"I want to help raise awareness of the reality of homelessness because I'm able to speak from a position of experience.
"And the fact is, in the current economic state homelessness can happen to absolutely any of us."
SHOW SUPPORT WHEN DINING OUT
DINERS can support St Basil's in the run-up to Christmas by adding £1 to their restaurant bill.
Nine city restaurants have signed up to the annual StreetSmart fundraising drive, hoping to raise thousands of pounds for Birmingham's youth homelessness charity.
From now until Christmas the restaurants will add an optional £1 to each bill issued.
And other restaurants are being urged to join the scheme now so that they can raise money throughout December.
For details email: Anne.Morton@stbasils.org.uk
Restaurants taking part:
Adam's in Bennetts’s Hill
Café Opus at the Ikon Gallery
Carter's of Moseley in Wake Green Road
The Circle Restaurant at The Birmingham Hippodrome
Le Monde Fish Bar And Grill in Brindleyplace
The Plough in Harborne
Restaurant VMF at Villa Park
Simpsons in Edgbaston
StageSide at The Birmingham Hippodrome