The young people living independently at the Foyer have endured tough times but, with the support they’re given, they’re able to pursue the opportunities that anyone else can
By Saskia Murphy
Home to two universities, Manchester’s Oxford Road is a hive of academia, diversity, investment and enterprise. With museums, galleries and music venues on the doorstep, the area attracts millions of students, artists, performers and gig-goers, and the street is always busy with double-decker buses transporting young people from libraries to lecture halls.
Most of the people in this district of growth and opportunity are working towards something. It seems right, then, that the Manchester Foyer – a supported living complex for young people aged 16-25 – forms part of the landscape.
Most of the young people living in the Foyer are there because they have nowhere else to go. Family bereavement, mental health problems, homelessness, abuse and relationship breakdowns are just some of the situations that lead young people to seek the specialist support on offer, and many residents say they would be sleeping on the streets if it hadn’t been there to take them in.
Owned by St Vincent’s Housing Association, the Manchester Foyer houses 61 young people and helps them with education, finance, job seeking and emotional support. Young people living there have access to their own flat, laundry services and an IT suite. It is a chance for young people to live independently, but those who are vulnerable know help is always at hand.
“I enjoy living here. Everyone gets on, they’re all nice and I feel a lot calmer.”
“A lot of our young people come to us because they have been sofa-surfing for a long time, they have been asked to leave home by family, or they have had a really chaotic upbringing,” says support coordinator Helen Walker, who has worked at the Foyer for nine years. “Sometimes they come from street homelessness because they have had nowhere else to go.
“We have young people leaving care; we have young people fleeing violence. They come here trying to live independently and trying to keep education and training going.”
It is compulsory for Foyer residents to commit to courses, vocational training or volunteering, with around 15 residents a year leaving to go to university.
“We firmly believe that whatever background they have faced or whatever income they have got, it shouldn’t stop them,” says Walker. “If they want to go to university, fabulous. But they worry about things that other students wouldn’t. They think: ‘Other students go home at Christmas and during the summer. Where am I going to go?’
“They have all these extra pressures that can really impact them.”
During the Christmas period, Foyer staff put on a party and each young person is given a stocking on Christmas morning, but Walker says it is a difficult time for many of the young residents.
“It’s a really lonely time of year for a lot of people. There’s the idea of Christmas as this perfect time of year with the perfect family, the perfect life, and it can be really isolating for our young people.
“We try and put as much extra support in as we possibly can to try and take the pressure off, because it is a lonely time of year and it can be really sad.”
Seventeen-year-old Maya Ahmed moved into the Foyer in April. The daughter of an imam, Ahmed’s relationship with her family broke down because her father disagreed with her desire to wear western clothing and study at a mixed college.
“I was born and raised in the UK, but I was brought up in a strict community,” says Ahmed*. “Girls wear long stuff: they wear the hijab, and I was forced to do it even though I didn’t want to. I wasn’t allowed to take my scarf off.
“My dad is a really religious guy. I wasn’t allowed to speak to boys, even neighbours and little boys. I went to an all-girls school. I didn’t like it but I went for the sake of him. He wanted me to go to an Islamic school, but I wanted to integrate with other people.
“Me and my dad never had a father and daughter relationship. It was more about his religion. He would have let me get married to anyone as long as they were religious – he wouldn’t mind. It’s like a threat on your life.
“I never blended in. I never wanted to be a religious person. I believe in it, but I want to be open. I don’t want to commit my life to it.”
Maya’s situation reached breaking point during her GCSE exams. Still living with her parents, the teen would spend most of her time alone in her bedroom. Feeling isolated from the rest of her family, Maya started self-harming, and eventually she was hospitalised for drinking bleach.
“I would never sit with my parents, I was always alone. I was always in my room. I knew that if I went downstairs and sat with them, trouble would start.
“I couldn’t concentrate on my GCSEs because I had major problems. There were times when I went to hospital because I was drinking Dettol. I just hated it so much. It wasn’t a loving home.”
Ahmed’s school provided her with counselling, but it took months before she built up the courage to leave the family home. After enrolling at a new college, Ahmed had a meeting with a safeguarding officer, who arranged for her to move into a hostel while she waited for a place in the Foyer.
Leaving home for the last time, Ahmed sent her parents a text message explaining why she was leaving.
“I went to college and I didn’t go back, I just went to the hostel straight away. On the way I sent them a text that I’d prepared for a month. I told them everything. I told them I couldn’t handle it anymore.”
During the course of our conversation, Ahmed smiles twice: the first time is when she talks about her love of college; the second is when she reminisces about the staff who took care of her in the first hostel she was referred to.
“They are mothers too,” she says. “They are like your family.”
Now living in the Foyer, Ahmed has made the decision not to wear the hijab. Maya’s parents do not know where she lives, but she has seen her mother twice since she left home.
“I enjoy living here. Everyone gets along here – they’re all nice. I feel a lot calmer.
“I think more young people should know about things like this. I would be on the streets, or I would have just grabbed any guy and lived with him. I think that would have been worse.”
The young people living in the Foyer are creative. Two of the people I meet are in bands, while others spend their time painting and writing.
Eighteen-year-old Hannah Creer writes music. “It’s an outlet,” she says. “It’s a way to get everything out when you can’t physically put it into words. It’s helped me deal with a lot.”
We meet at the Foyer, which she moved into in September 2015, but she now lives alone in a housing association property. Government targets encourage Foyer staff to help residents move on when they are ready, with the average young person staying for up to 12 months. Hannah lived at the Foyer for just over a year, and she describes everyone who has helped her as “a lifesaver”.
“I moved in because of family relationship breakdowns,” Creer explains. “I wasn’t getting on with my dad and I don’t speak to my mum or anyone else in my family, so things were quite hard.”
Growing up in north Manchester, Hannah always felt as though she didn’t fit in with her family.
“I have four older brothers,” she says. “I’ve grown up around boys. I’m not a girlie girl. I used to think my dad wasn’t happy because I wore jeans and trackies and jumpers, I didn’t wear dresses and skirts, but then you learn that you’ve got to be your own person. You can’t just be what someone else wants you to be.
“I’ve never really felt like I have ever fitted in with family. I’ve always sort of felt like I’m the one that’s on the side and that I’m just there.”
Creer’s parents split up when she was very young, and from then on she divided her time between both households.
“My mum and dad split and I switched between them for a good five or six years. It’s always hard when your parents have split up because you want to see both of them but you can’t.
“I was constantly going from my mum’s to my dad’s. It puts a lot of strain on each household. You don’t want to feel like you are letting your mum down or your dad.”
Creer has struggled with mental health problems, and says staff at the Foyer helped her get support.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I moved in here. I was quite scared. I kept myself to myself for a bit. But then after staff found out more about my mental health I had to engage more with them.
“Once they knew about that it made it easier. I could come downstairs and say: ‘I’m having a really bad day, can we have a chat?’ Whereas at the beginning I would have just sat in my flat and not really said anything.”
Now living independently, Creer misses the support she had access to as a Foyer resident.
“It’s stressful. You don’t realise how much you have to do. You don’t realise how much support you had. Moving on to my own place hasn’t been a massive shock because I was expecting it, but I haven’t got the staff downstairs who I can go and speak to if I get bored. I can’t go and knock on someone’s door and ask them if they want to do something.”
But Creer is determined to look towards the future, and has recently enrolled on a music course at a local college.
“You just carry on,” she smiles. “I need to get a part-time job. I’ll do anything that gets a bit of money. I don’t care if it’s mopping a floor, collecting dishes or shelf stacking.
“You can decide to think and live as a victim or as a survivor. If you live as a victim you are not going to be able to do anything. You will never be able to move anywhere in life.”
Indigo Azidahaka was placed in the Foyer after social services realised he had been sofa surfing and living with a boyfriend at the age of 16. Now 19, Indigo identifies as transgender and is in the process of changing his name.
“Azidahaka is Persian mythology,” he explains. “There are about 50 different ways to pronounce it and spell it. It’s a demon boy who has three heads and is in charge of witchcraft. I thought that was quite funny.”
Azidahaka’s father died when he was 10, and he says he had a difficult relationship with his mother. “Our relationship broke down to the point where there was nothing there,” he says. “Now we text each other occasionally and I go and see her once in a while.”
A sufferer of mental health problems, including borderline personality disorder (BPD) and obsessive compulsive disorder, Indigo is a keen musician and artist and regularly holds gigs.
“If I wasn’t in the Foyer I might not be here,” he says. “The reason I’m always so busy is because once I stop I can’t start again. I have days where I can’t get out of bed. They go and on and on for weeks. Because I have BPD I have this mania, so either I feel nothing at all or everything I feel is extreme.”
Azidahaka describes his time sofa surfing as “a bit of a blur”, but says moving into the Foyer has been a step forward. He has made his flat a home.
“My first night in the Foyer was really weird because all I had was a sleeping bag, but now my flat is full of Chinese lanterns and incense everywhere. A lot of the things that I own are in boxes that I have picked up off the street and painted. You can find some pretty cool stuff in skips and charity shops and turn your house into a pretty cool place.”
David Kernaghan entered the Foyer at the age of 17 after his mother died of breast cancer. Now 25, he has a degree in media production and works full time in an admin job in Manchester city centre
“When my mum died I had no other family – no grandparents or aunts or uncles. I was too young to be left on my own but too old to be adopted, so that’s where the Foyer came in,” he explains. “They took me in, gave me accommodation which was across the road from college and they helped me with anything I needed to do.”
Despite the physical and emotional upheaval Kernaghan endured after his mother’s death, he was able to continue with his studies. When the time came for him to go to university, Foyer staff supported him with student finance applications and hired a van to take his belongings to Cardiff University.
And when he graduated with a 2:1 in 2013, he turned to the Foyer again, hoping staff could offer advice about what he should do next.
“I finished the course and I was in the same situation,” Kernaghan says. “I found that most of my friends were leaving Cardiff to go home. The only logical thing to do would be to go back home, but I didn’t really have a home to go to.”
Because David was still under the age of 25, he was able to move back into the Foyer until he arranged permanent accommodation.
Staff introduced David to a housing scheme called SnugBug. Also part of St Vincent’s Housing Association, SnugBug allows people under the age of 34 to move into affordable house shares. Now living in Chorlton, David hopes to apply for a masters degree in the future.
“I think I have definitely come far but there is further to go. I haven’t reached my full potential just yet. But I never would have made it even a tenth of what I’ve achieved if it wasn’t for St Vincent’s helping me out along the way.”
*Not her real name
Main photo: David Kernaghan (left) who lost his mum at 17 and Hannah Creer whose family broke down. All photos by Rebecca Lupton
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