I was beaten by my alcoholic dad at 5, in foster care at 9, had my baby taken away at 16 and homeless by 18

The 23-year-old, from Sunderland, spent her late teens sofa surfing, clinging to bad relationships and toxic friends because they could offer her a place to sleep which seemed safer than the streets.

More than 18,000 young people under 25 are expected to spend Christmas homeless, according to Centrepoint.

But two thirds of these will be hidden homeless because, like Zinnia, they risk sofa-surfing to escape the cold winter nights.

Her teen years weren’t Zinnia’s first experience of homelessness.

Growing up as the eldest of three girls, her parents would move often to avoid unwanted attention from social services – and the family even lived in a tent at one point.

Speaking exclusively to Fabulous Online, Zinnia said: “My childhood was quite difficult.

“When I was five my mum kicked my dad out so it was just me and my dad, he would physically and sexually abuse me because he had major anger issues and was an alcoholic.

“When I hit the age of nine I was put into foster care.

“The first time I went to school was when I started comprehensive in Year 7, so I was really behind and had to catch up. I couldn’t read or write. I used to get bullied quite a lot.”

When she left school at 16, Zinnia fell pregnant with her boyfriend at the time.

Social services were keen to take her daughter into care from birth and Zinnia decided to fight to keep her, despite suffering from depression during this time.

Because I had nowhere else to go I ended up getting back with my ex. That was difficult because I didn’t want to be with him but I had no choice

She said: “I had to break up with the father of my baby to keep my daughter. It was a difficult time.

“I wanted to spend Christmas Day with my daughter in my bedroom, but my foster carers took her downstairs and told me not to leave my room.

“They said if I left my room they were going to ring social services. They were using my daughter against me.

“At that stage I just couldn’t cope with it anymore so I decided to put her up for adoption when she was three months old.”

Her foster parents took over care of Zinnia’s daughter, and kicked her out as soon as she turned 18 but she then decided she wanted her daughter with her.

She fought for custody of in court for a year, but it was ruled she should be put up for adoption and Zinnia chose a same-sex couple so the tot could have two mums.

She said: “Because I had nowhere else to go I ended up getting back with my ex. That was difficult because I didn’t want to be with him but I had no choice.”

Zinnia and her ex got a private flat but had to move out after two months because they couldn’t afford the rent.

They stayed at his mum’s for four months before moving into a council flat for a year, which they eventually had to leave because her boyfriend “was causing trouble with the neighbours”.

Zinnia said: “We got another flat when I was 21. I couldn’t handle it. My mental health was really bad, I was really depressed in the relationship so after being with him for four years I ended it.

“After that, I couldn’t stay in the flat anymore. I didn’t feel safe.”

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Zinnia initially stayed with a friend for seven months, saying: “They weren’t the best support. They led me into drinking all the time.”

She then moved into her a partner’s mum’s home for five months, even staying there after they split because she had nowhere else to go.

Zinnia was later offered new home, but said: “My friends started using me for that flat. One of them would come over on weekends and use it to bring men over.

“She would take over my living room and use it for a place to drink. It got really hard for me to trust anyone, so I just cut everyone off.”

I couldn't stay in the flat anymore. I didn't feel safe

As she was now 21, Zinnia’s council support worker could no longer help her, but referred her to Centrepoint.

Zinnia said: “I didn’t really get involved with Centrepoint until my birth mum got in touch.

“I met her for the first time since I was nine and I was really disappointed because she hadn’t turned her life around.

“That’s when it hit me that I didn’t want my daughter to look at me like that, so I started looking for work.”

Centrepoint helped Zinnia get a place on a painting and decorating apprenticeship with the North East Autism Society.

Zinnia always enjoyed art and now studies at Newcastle College once-a-week, as well as being in a happy relationship with her boyfriend of one year.

By sharing my story to other young people who are going through a tough time, I’m hoping it shows them you can get out of it and achieve your dreams

She said: “I feel really good now, I’ve become a lot stronger.

“By sharing my story to other young people who are going through a tough time, I’m hoping it shows them you might be in a rough state now, but you can get out of it and achieve your dreams. I managed to get my dream job.

“My job relaxes me and helps me massively with my mental health. Doing something that I love every single day keeps me going.

“College has been really supportive, my tutor Andy’s so patient and without that support I would have quit straight away, because I struggle with written work.”

Earlier this year, Zinnia won Centrepoint's Rising Star Award and received a gong from Prince William.

Despite turning her life around, Zinnia still struggles with the festive period.

She explained: “I didn’t know what Christmas was until I was nine.

“My foster carers tried to bring it into my life and I just didn’t understand. I was having anxiety attacks and kicking off all the time.

“It was very confusing. It’s not a celebration if you’re forced to do it.

Christmas reminds you family is something you haven’t had. But it’s something I’m going to aim for in the future

“It’s an emotional time of the year because you see all the people with their friends and families celebrating.

“It reminds you it’s something you haven’t had. But it’s something I’m going to aim for in the future.

“For the first time ever I’m actually doing Christmas this year. My boyfriend and his family have asked me to spend Christmas Day with them.

“I’m nervous because they’ve been brought up with it so they’re used to it.

“They’re used to singing, the food, opening presents, whereas I’m just going to stand there being the quiet, nervous one. But they understand and accept that.”

Centrepoint is the UK’s leading youth homelessness charity. To find out more or donate to Centrepoint this Christmas click here.

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