“I’m passionate about homelessness – I’ve been there myself”
“Frightening and lonely,” is how she describes living in a mixed hostel after vowing never to return home after college one day.
She is now the Domestic Violence, Homelessness & Selective Licensing Team Manager at Middlesbrough Council where she develops strategies to tackle some of its most embedded social problems.
The devastating news that thousands of workers have been made redundant following the liquidation of the SSI steel plant in Redcar stirs up familiar feelings for Sharon.
She grew up in nearby Grangetown, an area which still bears deep scars from the 1980s recession when the blast furnaces grew cold.
Her father, like most men in the community, was employed in the heavy industry and when unemployment washed over them when she was 13, life became strained for their families both financially and emotionally.
Sharon said she was a typical “angsty, stubborn” teenager who couldn’t understand why, on a rapidly dwindling budget, she couldn’t go vegetarian or have the money to buy the latest Smiths album.
But a crisis over her identity separated her misery from her classmates’ dissatisfaction with the world and their place in it until one evening she refused to go home.
“Family members put me up for a bit so I was ‘sofas-surfing’, my parents were really worried but I could not go back to that level of unhappiness,” she said.
Social services offered help and arranged for the 16-year-old to go into a hostel in central Middlesbrough where many of the residents were suffering from mental health problems.
“It was fascinating but also quite frightening, especially when some people had psychoses. It it definitely built up my resilience.”
Always a big reader, she lost herself in books for company and volunteered at Middlesbrough Law Centre where, as well as learning more about the homeless situation, she also learnt about equality issues and got more involved in politics.
After repairing the relationship with her parents – Sharon is now incredibly close to her mum – she was working at a housing advice centre while living alone in a modest flat with her baby boy at the age of 19.
With no television, she joined Middlesbrough library and continued to read voraciously before deciding to pick up her studies again.
“I’d felt a bit of a failure because I’d dropped out of college twice but did an access course and then started a degree at Teesside University although I didn’t finish it.
However, I’ve recently done my Institute of Leadership and Management level five, which is the equivalent to a degree in a year, so I don’t feel I have anything to prove academically now,” she explained.
She met her future husband, Andrew, and went back to her housing officer roots before taking up a position at Middlesbrough Council to address the town’s homelessness situation.“The issue is a longterm passion, knowing exactly what it means to not have the security of a place to stay is a frightening position to be in. When it was me, I felt very isolated, stressed, and scared for my safety.”
Sharon said that while mental health used to be the biggest factor causing homelessness, it’s now up there with substance misuse and domestic violence.
She added: “We have some fantastic agencies in Middlesbrough for domestic violence, including My Sister’s Place and Harbour but, I think it’s sad to say that there are still issues around social exclusion and these very disconnected adults hide away altogether.”
“I have a real passion for my role in helping the most excluded but we need to get more deeply into the root causes of domestic violence to stop it affecting younger and younger people.”She added: “If money were no object I’d like to introduce an education programme in schools around domestic violence about power and control and having healthy relationships. “I would also love to have a community facility for people who are otherwise difficult to house. It’s a basic human right to have accommodation. I know some people thing certain people shouldn’t have a house but they do not go away, instead they go to A&E to keep warm or they turn to crime.
“People are much more likely to reoffend when they come out of prison if they don’t have a place to stay so the burden just gets placed elsewhere.”