How did you become homeless?
I’d been in prison, but they couldn’t sort me any accommodation for when I was getting out. The housing officer couldn’t get me anything with the housing association because of some problem with rent arrears. My benefits hadn’t been getting paid regularly, and so it had built up this debt I didn’t even know about.
At the time I was in Drake Hall [prison], but because that’s in Staffordshire, they couldn’t even help me to find a hostel in Manchester. So I ended up having to phone my cousin in Buxton to stay there for four weeks. Then I went back to Manchester and sofa surfed with some other friends for another four weeks. But it was coming up to Christmas, and the guy I was with had family visiting. So I had to leave.
The council still hadn’t sorted me anything, so I went to Shelter. They tried all sorts to get me in a hostel, but everywhere was full. Finally, I got into Narrowgate (Christian night shelter). But they were only open Monday to Thursday and so finally at the weekend I ended up on the street.
Do you remember your first night on the street?
Horrible. I kept thinking that something would come up, that someone would save me. But they never did.
Thankfully, I’d already started speaking to some people at the night shelter, so I stuck around with the guys. If I was going to be sleeping on the street, I’d rather be with a couple of blokes.
I stayed with this one guy, by the Post Office. He’d say to me “You get on the inside; I’ll stay on the outside to protect you.” He was about 65 anyway, an old bloke really. But he still wanted to keep me on the inside and look after me. I did worry whether he’d be able to, especially at the weekend with people coming past drunk.
Did you ever get any trouble?
No, we were very lucky really. Though you’re always on edge. You hear a group coming past, making lots of noise and you worry what might happen. You have to sleep with one eye open.
A few groups would actually come back and give us food or stop and talk to us, which was really nice. Although, actually when it’s 3:00 AM on a Saturday morning and you’re trying to sleep, you don’t really want someone waking you up. I’d rather just be left alone.
How did the street compare to prison?
It was better in prison. If I hadn’t got help into a hostel, I’d have probably done something stupid to get sent back to jail. At least you know you’ve got 3 meals a day and a bed to sleep in – it’s honestly better than being on the streets.
That’s why so many people keep going back in and out. People come out, with nowhere to live and can’t get a job with a criminal record. So they want to go back to jail. I remember one girl crying because she had to leave prison and had nowhere to go. She was back in by teatime the next day.
How do you break that cycle?
Stop judging people and give them a chance. For jobs, at least give people an interview before you reject them for having a criminal record. They might be perfect for the job you’re offering.
And the prisons need to help people into accommodation more. I know some girls that have been sent out with just the leaving grant, only £46, and a travel ticket back to where they’re from. They get told to just go and present to the council as homeless.
How did you end up in prison?
I was a heroin addict for 20 years. It started with smoking weed at 13, then going onto amphetamines, acid and ecstasy. Then I started smoking crack at 19. I was 24 when I started using heroin. I didn’t start using it every day at first, just the occasional once in a while. But it’d become more and more frequent. So eventually I woke up one day and I needed it, rather than wanted it.
But I worked. I’d always worked. I even had three jobs at the time. But I got made redundant from some of them, and was just left with some irregular shifts. I was seeing this guy at the time. He had a bit of money in the bank, so we were still buying gear. But the money ran out eventually, just before Christmas, so we ended up going out and robbing. It was seven robberies in seven days over Christmas and New Year.
I’d never stole before to fund my drug habit. I’d always worked. That made me think I was better than other addicts. I’d committed crime, because I was selling drugs at points, but I still thought I was better than them. It’s ridiculous to think like that, but that’s how it is when you’re an addict. You’re always thinking “well I’m not as bad as them, I’d never take that step further down…” But most of the time you end up going further and further.
Three months later, we got a knock on the door off the police. And that was it – jail, five years. I did two and a half.
Which organisations helped you get off the street?
We’d go to Lifeshare on Dantzic Street for breakfast at the weekends, and then during the week we’d go to The Booth Centre. I spoke to Heidi there and she got in touch with the council to sort things out. It was from that I got some shared accommodation and eventually my own flat. So really The Booth Centre saved me, which is why I volunteer with them now. I’m also doing a lot on the Homeless Charter.
Why is the Homeless Charter so important?
Because it’s bringing people together. Like if you go to The Booth Centre to get help for something and they can’t, they’ll tell you someone else who can do it. Everyone is working together.
Are you recovering from the addiction now?
I’ve done RAMP (Recovery and Motivation Programme) twice now. It’s 24 group sessions on different topics. The first time I wasn’t in the right place to be doing it, so I ended up using again. But this time I’ve been completely clean – I started my subutex (opiate replacement) script in December, and I just started reducing it down yesterday. All of the volunteering work keeps me occupied and stops me from thinking about taking drugs again.
The guys who run RAMP want me to come back and become a facilitator. They don’t get many females in the group – a lot join for one session and then don’t come back. It’s for various reasons, like previous domestic abuse, that they don’t want to sit in a room full of blokes. But hopefully a female facilitator might help.
What would you say to people still stuck in addiction now?
It’s hard really, because unless you’re ready to stop then no amount of people will be able to help you. You just need to have had enough of doing it. I’d been doing it for 20 years and was just sick of it. But when you are ready, there’s plenty of help out there to quit.
Do you have any other comments to share with people?
Just stop judging people and do something to help. Anyone can end up homeless. You’re only one mistake away from being in prison and two pay cheques away from being on the street. I never thought I’d end up being homeless or in prison, yet I ended up doing both. Just stop judging people, because it could happen to you.