Winter Survival Appeal: ‘I was 17 and had no home, no money and no food’

A London-based charity champions the rights of children trying to escape abuse. David Cohen sees how it stops homelessness

When Mina was hospitalised for feeling suicidal, she was given anti-depressants and discharged after a few days — but she refused to go home to her parents. Since primary school, the softly-spoken 17-year-old had endured regular vicious beatings from her father, who whipped her when he got angry — and she wanted out.

“My mum and dad both did physical abuse but mum mainly left it to dad,” said Mina (not her real name). “He would lose it and hit me with a belt or slippers, mostly on my arms or legs, but sometimes near my face. The smallest thing would trigger him — my grades, who my friends were, my boyfriend being from a different culture — and I would cower in the corner until mum got him to stop. The next day I would go to school all bruised and try to hide it. Once I had cuts down my arm. My mother’s advice was to pull down my sleeves so nobody would notice.”

Mina asked social services in her outer London local authority to take her into care, but with child protection costs spiralling since the pandemic, they turned her down and Mina had to sofa surf at school friends’ homes. “I had no money and no clothes and had to borrow things to wear from my friends whose parents fed me,” she said.

Evening Standard

For more than two months Mina moved from friend to friend, staying with three families in all, but as she started running out of places to stay, her school raised concerns about her deteriorating mental health and another meeting with social services was arranged. Again, they failed to take her into care.

The breakthrough came when a social worker referred her to Coram Voice, a charity based in central London that champions the rights of children escaping abusive homes and helps thousands more in and around the care system. Last year they worked with 8,800 young people, including more than 300 who, like Mina, experienced homelessness.

Coram Voice is one of the charities we are supporting with a £50,000 grant out of money raised by our Winter Survival Appeal in partnership with Comic Relief, so they can help more children like Mina. In her case, they were able to advocate for her and put pressure on the local authority which was trying to delay proceedings as long as possible.

Scarlett Cowling, 30, an advocate for Coram Voice who works with 70 young people a year across 10 London boroughs, took on Mina’s case. She said: “Young people do not know the law or their rights and that’s where we come in. Some local authorities do all they can to avoid taking a child into care at age 17 because if they are ‘looked after’ for at least 13 weeks before they turn 18, it imposes a financial burden on them under Section 20 to support the child even after they leave care at 18, until the age of 25.

“So they try to delay until as close to their 18th birthday as possible because that means they take on a much lower burden of care under Section 17 of the Act and only look after the child until they turn 18.”

Ms Cowling added: “In cases of 17-year-olds like Mina, time is of the essence. We work fast. I am glad to say we were successful in getting her looked after with full support under Section 20.” Brigid Robinson, managing director of Coram Voice, said: “Our life-changing interventions help children escape abusive homes and take young people off the streets. Getting them the support they need from social care is vital. It means young people are safe and secure so they can flourish as they move towards adult life.”

Specialist Advocate 16+ Scarlett Cowling at Coram Voice, Bloomsbury, central London
Matt Writtle

Today Mina lives in local authority-supported accommodation with three other teenage girls in care. “I really like my room,” she said. “I have made one friend and I am still attending sixth form college. I have been on anti-depressants and I am getting a lot better.”

With Christmas coming, Ms Cowling said many children in care struggle because it’s a reminder they don’t have a family and will spend it alone.

She said: “We’ve got a lot of young people in arrears with rent and bills and in thousands of pounds of debt because of the cost-of-living crisis. Some haven’t eaten for days. These children have no family to call up to say, ‘I’ve run out of cash, can I come round for dinner?’ They end up borrowing from friends which causes conflict when they can’t pay it back.”

But Mina said she was looking forward to her first Christmas on her own. “My dad does not believe in holidays so we never celebrated Christmas or even birthdays. This year I will be with my boyfriend and we’re going to buy each other presents. He’s planning on taking me into central London to see the Christmas lights. I can’t wait.”

How you can help

£10 could provide a nourishing meal for a Londoner every day for a month

£20 could provide a duvet and pillow to a young person helping them sleep at night

£50 could contribute to a new school uniform for a child fleeing with a parent from an abusive relationship

£100 could provide 400 meals for families at a local community centre

£300 could pay for all that’s needed by a family expecting a baby, including new cot, mattress and pram

£1,750 could get a truck packed with enough food for 7,000 meals

In a nutshell

We have partnered with Comic Relief to launch our Winter Survival Appeal Christmas Campaign, with Comic Relief pledging £500,000 to kick off our fund. The money we raise will help fund charities in London and across the country helping people who are struggling with the cost of living crisis

To make a donation, visit