After a difficult home life and years in foster care, Beth Wylie from Belfast found herself homeless and in crisis at just 22 years old. But with the support of the NI Youth Forum, funded with money raised by National Lottery players, Beth has turned her life around and achieved more than she imagined possible.
By the time Beth was 14, her home life had all but broken down. She was drinking, self-harming and just about surviving in the chaos of a house over-run by nearly 30 cats.
“There was just me and mum. My dad left when I was a baby; I don’t know who he is,” says Beth who, although a quietly spoken 26-year-old, has a steely sense of determination.
“She wasn’t able to look after me and from as early as I can remember it was like I had to look after her. I didn’t know what it was like to have my school uniform washed and ready for a Monday or to have tea on the table every night. And of course there were the cats. At one stage mum had 28 of them in the house.
“My mum had mental health issues but she is a very reclusive person and tends to bury her head when there are issues to be faced. She refused to engage with the social workers who tried to help us over the years.”
Beth was bullied at school, and in third year she fell in with a new crowd and started drinking. She eventually stopped going to school entirely, which is when social services got involved again. When the social workers saw the situation Beth was living in, she was placed in foster care with a family in Bangor.
“I never went home again,” says Beth. “I did continue to have contact with my mum. The social worker’s notes say I’d be upset if she didn’t turn up and hadn’t told me she couldn’t make it. But contact broke down and we’re not in touch now. I tried but I’ve given up now.”
With a fresh start at a new school, Beth did well and left with five good GCSEs. But by now she was also at the end of her foster care placement, adrift from the only stable environment she’d ever experienced.
“I moved to a hostel in west Belfast. I did a beauty therapy course to Level 2 but I struggled with all the small talk you’d to make with clients, so it didn’t really work out,” says Beth who subsequently moved to east Belfast to be closer to friends.
“That’s where I met my ex. We were together for three years but I developed mental health problems and didn’t get the support I needed.
“I ended up having to move out and lived with a friend. That ended badly though when she literally threw me and my clothes onto the street one night.”
Beth was 22 – and homeless.
Now in crisis, homelessness charity the Welcome Centre got her a place in a hostel. While she was in the hostel, Beth got involved in an awareness raising programme for residents run by the Council for the Homeless.
“I’ve my head screwed on and could see it would be useful both for me and others like me. After all, I’ve lived the life – I know what goes on behind closed doors,” says Beth.
“Through that I got involved with the NI Youth Forum and its programme to provide people like me with support to get back to work or education.
“As a result I completed a university course, spent a week in Canada on a leadership course and got a Level Three qualification in housing rights.”
And it’s that training and support which has helped turn Beth’s life around. The NI Youth Forum is working in partnership with the NIHE, Extern and the University of Ulster to support young people aged 16-25, who have experienced homelessness or been in care. They’re using almost £600,000 of funding raised by National Lottery players to help the young people live independently and prepare them for education, training and work. Activities include a bespoke university accredited course and work placements.
Thanks to their help Beth has been able to hold down a job in a call centre and even joined the Executive Board of the Youth Forum.
“Without the support I’ve had I honestly don’t know where I’d be,” she says. “I remember being sent home from A&E one night even though it was obvious I was suicidal.
“But I’m not alone and homelessness among young people is only going to get worse unless something is done to address the mental health issues which are so often at the root of the issue. Without help, I too could have been just another statistic.”
Chris Quinn, director of Northern Ireland Youth Forum said: “I want to thank National Lottery players for making our project possible. As a youth led organisation our programmes are designed to reach out to young people and support them to have a voice on issues that they care about.
“Beth is an inspiration to us all. She is a remarkable young woman and she has had a lot if input into our new project – bringing voice to isolated young people and working together to design a potentially life changing programme.”