‘The fear was immense’ - How I went from top chef to sleeping on the streets
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A homeless chef saved from suicide, a city banker made redundant and a reformed drug addict turned poet – three former rough sleepers share stories about life on the streets and their involvement in a new art exhibition.
‘J’ the chef
Firstly, I want to say that no one wakes up in the morning, in their comfortable beds, in a nice home with 2.4 kids and a good job, and says to themselves ‘do you know what? I’ve had enough of this, what I really want is to be on the streets’.
A lot of this boils down to situations that have become out of control. Mental health also plays a massive role. And people’s childhoods, their upbringings, shape their lives.
I’m a Norfolk boy, raised in the countryside.
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I lost my mum and dad when I was young. My mother was incredibly wonderful. She taught me to play the piano, and how to cook. But she suffered from a condition that was then known as manic depression. She used to hide herself away. It’s hereditary, it was passed on to me.
I’m autistic and diagnosed bipolar. But back in the 1970s I spent more time standing in the playground than I did being educated.
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I was an unruly, horrible little child. I got whacked a lot. But my condition remained undiagnosed and I never got any help.
I used to have dreadlocks and I didn’t fit in.
Later on I became a chef, working in Suffolk. I worked and worked and worked, I had children and a house. But I was never at home. Christmas, New Year. My marriage fell apart. I took on more work, I wanted to be the best chef there is.
The pressure got so much and the alcohol was always in front of me. The world of hospitality is littered with drugs and alcohol.
All of a sudden, something changed and the alcohol got the better of me. Drink no longer tasted nice anymore but I couldn’t give it up. I had a breakdown and I woke up in Addenbrooke’s Hospital. It took less than a month from me losing my flat to being on the streets of Cambridge and that’s where I stayed for another eight.
When I declared myself homeless at the local council, and was told they had no duty of care, ‘here’s a couple of leaflets, hope for the best, away you go’, I’d never been so frightened in my life.
The fear of sleeping out, being on my own was immense. People think the most basic needs in life are food and water. But they’re also safety and security. The knowledge that you’re going to wake up in the morning without having had anything poured over you and set alight in the night.
So I hid. I avoided day centres. I avoided hostels. I was scared of them. The roughest place I’ve stayed in my life was a hostel in Ipswich, far rougher than any prison.
People wonder why homeless people use substances like alcohol or heroin. Alcohol is the most destructive drug I know. But I also know why people use it. It’s because of the fear of the night. You will use anything. People use these drugs to hide behind. But it’s not the addiction that’s the problem, it’s what lies beneath that’s the problem.
There are some really good organisations helping people on the streets. Some of them even do charity sleep-outs, to show what it’s like.
But you can’t know what it’s like. Not until they’ve taken the keys from your home. Not until there’s no friends who will have you. The doors are shut and you’re scared. So very scared. And more than that, you’re incredibly vulnerable.
I remember one Saturday there was an England game. I’m not much of a football person, but I knew there was an England game. They showed the game on a big screen in a park. England lost, I believe. I think they were playing Portugal.
I was walking past a pub and some people inside must have taken exception to the way I looked. I woke up again in Addenbrooke’s with a fractured eye socket, I hadn’t even spoken to them. I was so frightened.
One day, I decided I’d had enough. I couldn’t see any future. I was angry. Why did I have no family? It didn’t seem fair.
I didn’t realise at the time I was ill. I thought it was all on me.
I tried to kill myself in Cambridge.
Just as I was about to take my own life, somebody came up to me and said ‘excuse me, are you OK?’
It was a couple of hippies. We talked. They took me back to their commune and it changed my life. They dried me up. Why those people came up to me at that precise moment, I’ll never know, but they saved my life.
They helped me reverse the equation. I thought ‘my life is a mess, so I drink’. They taught me ‘your life is a mess because you drink’.
Things changed. A friend of mine at the colony, a sculptor, knew there was an organisation arranging some aid workers to go to Africa with the Army to help with this Ebola thing that was happening. A young lady had been supposed to go but she couldn’t stick it. They said I’d be good and I was invited.
Off I went, I was given the chance. Before I knew it I was on a plane and my life just changed. I’d arrived, I became part of a massive family, and it was great. I worked with Unicef and the World Health Organisation as part of the aid effort. I learned more in Africa and my time on the streets than I could have learned from any university or anything in my life.
Since then, I’ve been so lucky.
When I returned to England, my noncommissioned officer in the Army said to me ‘where’d you like to go?’
I said I’d like to go back to Suffolk. I like Ipswich, it’s a lovely, friendly little town. Within a day my ex-landlords said they had a flat and I’ve been there for five years.
It feels like I’ve been given a second chance. Every day I wake up in my home and for a moment I appreciate everything that’s around me.
I’m warm, I’m dry, I’m going to have a nice cup of coffee. I’ll run a bath, listen to some music and get ready for the day.
I want to say to everyone, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It may seem dim and distant but with the right help, anyone can reach it. Ipswich is a great place and it’s fantastic that things like this exhibition are happening.
There’s a wonderful community spirit and there are other great organisations like Inside Out the Phoenix Project, The Loop, Volunteering Matters. And also a lot of homeless projects, hostels.
But unfortunately we live in a society where cash comes before compassion and until that changes there will always be homeless people.
There are so many people who are victims of circumstances, who have fallen through the net, often due to mental health issues.
And when we talk about the homeless, we’ve also got to think about the people who are not homeless but are very vulnerable and are in danger or on the very verge of it. I know couples here in Suffolk who are both working and have no children and have good jobs, but they’re just one wrong turn away from being where I was.
MORE: Photographs reveal reality of life on the streets in Ipswich‘N’ the banker
When I came to Ipswich in 1991, I was what you might call a ‘normal person’.
I’d always worked, always paid my taxes, did the right things.
I spent 14 years working at Barclays Bank International in London, and then I went to New Zealand. When I returned I thought Ipswich would be the right place to bring up my young family, because London had become too expensive.
I was made redundant six times in a very short space of time.
I’d also become a single parent, looking after the kids on my own.
Things change very quickly. It’s this ripple effect, which builds.
By 2017, I was so depressed that I didn’t leave the road where I lived all year. It’s the most numbing experience. People see you going down and you feel even worse because you can see you’re dragging them down as well.
I could see ahead to the exact date when I knew I was going to become homeless and it was terrifying. I certainly didn’t become homeless deliberately.
I walked away and I left everything and I thought it was the worst thing possible. But in actual fact it was the most amazing thing I could have done, because the baggage and weight you carry all your life, it’s killing.
I didn’t realise it at the time.
I was homeless during one of the hottest summers on record. I felt as thought I was going to boil to death.
I remember spending my 62nd birthday on the streets staring up at the wires of an old mattress above me.
Eventually I found sheltered accommodation, but everyone seemed very suspicious of me because I was very different.
I was in a tiny dorm with seven men, all of them just released from prison. I was labelled an undercover cop or worse.
Looking back now, my experiences on the street were some of best things that ever happened to me. It took this massive shock, this tsunami to connect with who I really am.
Nobody understands that, but if this hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be the person who I am today. And that person is 100% better than the person I was a year ago.
When I first met the people putting this exhibition together I thought they must be do-gooders, doing it for the wrong reasons,
I couldn’t be more wrong. This is a great initiative. It’s started another little ripple, which I hope can continue somewhere.
It’s so positive.
I’m going to take people with me and we’re going to fly.
‘F’ the poet
I was born and bred in Ipswich to Jamaican parents who came over in the early 60s.
When I left school I got into street culture, drug culture.
It started off with just weed and hash. Then, in the mid 90s, these other drugs started coming along like cocaine, crack and heroin.
I should’ve known better, I don’t blame anyone other than myself, because I should have said no.
At first, it was OK because I had a little money behind me. But what I’d put away in 10 years was gone in six months. Then I started going out and stealing little things, then bigger things, then doing burglaries and robberies.
I spent many years in prison.
Pretty soon, everyone loses their trust in you, so you’ve got nowhere to turn.
That’s how I ended up spending nine months on the streets.
It wasn’t nice. The only luck I had was that I found out about the night shelter before winter hit.
Then I went to Cavendish Lodge for two months. I injured my leg. It’s not good to be injured, but in five weeks I had my own place.
I’ve left the drugs behind. I don’t go burgling, robbing or shoplifting anymore. I don’t have any of those old people around me anymore, just my family.
My family wasn’t talking to me last year.
I was about to go to church for a Christmas dinner for the homeless when I got a call from my sister. I got to spend time with my nieces and nephews and my brothers and sisters. Two days later I got a call from my dad, who’d not spoken to me all year. I went for dinner with him. Now I see him about five times a week
I’ve got too much to lose now.
You can’t keep doing these things and expect people to keep coming back into your life. I’m 51 years old. I’m really happy with the turnaround.
I wrote this poem for the project about my time at Cavendish Lodge. They kick you out at 8.30am and this was based on what I’d do with my days. When I’m not doing drugs and living that rough life, I can concentrate a lot better. So I will be doing more of that. I’m trying to organise a radio show, featuring music, poetry and people talking about their experiences.
Without the help of Cavendish Lodge, the night shelters and the Job Centre I would probably be back in the gutter, in prison or even dead. I know many people who passed away from cold nights or drugs. I’m just glad I’ve turned my life around and if I can do it, anyone can.
The Life on the Streets exhibition runs this month at Ipswich Library, featuring photographs by 12 homeless people