Sam’s story: From Crisis at Christmas guest, to Crisis at Christmas Coordinator.
“One of the myths of homelessness it that homeless people always come from a bad family, but that wasn’t the case for me at all. I was just eighteen and I had a good career set up for me, but I was also being bullied badly at my job in the banking industry. It was affecting my results, but I didn’t get any support from my managers. I began to feel ashamed. I couldn’t tell my family that I was being bullied at work. I felt that people would judge me.
When my granddad past away, it was a complete shock to me. We were very close, and I just couldn’t cope with my emotions anymore. I got a new job as a cashier for Barclays, but all I really wanted to do was escape, so I got a one-way ferry ticket to Amsterdam. Running away seemed like the easy option. As the UK disappeared, I had tears rolling down my eyes. I found my way to Paris first because I thought it was this great place of romance and culture, but it wasn’t that at all. The poverty was intense, and I couldn’t get any support because I wasn’t a French citizen. I didn’t know whether to kill myself or not. It felt like survival now.
After Paris, Amsterdam seemed like a better option, but the weather was colder, and I was still living on the streets. Sometimes I’d sleep on the Metro, and Burger King was 24 hours, so I’d sit there shivering hoping people wouldn’t notice me. Just trying to stay awake. There was one hostel where if I cleaned the rooms, they would give me a bed for the night. There were a lot of drugs and dangers. I made friends with some heroin users, and they looked after me, but I didn’t want to use it myself. Everything in my mind told me to take it because I just wanted to forget - I wanted to forget I was in a strange country - this person who had a great family and a great job, but for who it all went wrong. They thought I was an undercover cop because I didn’t want to take it, but I knew it was a dangerous road that I thought I wouldn’t come back from.
I got a job cleaning the windows in the red-light district, and I got to know the people there well. They had families and kids. They were human beings too. I worked in some bars, and I started to think I could make something of myself there, but then I saw a message on Facebook from my dad saying they were planning my funeral. I was even reported missing on Interpol. Mentally I’d blocked all that pain out. But then it hit me. My family loved me, and I’d pushed them so far away.
The British Embassy helped me. They gave me a coach ticket and £20 for food, but when I got home, I was in a bad way. I stunk, but my dad and brother gave me a big hug. I’d never seen my mum so happy and so desperate at the same time. They couldn’t understand what was going on, but I had no answers either. I couldn’t explain to myself what had gone so wrong.
I was glad be home but gradually my mental health started to deteriorate again, which was just another factor to add on. I was nineteen by now and I decided to run away to Brighton. I went through a period of rough sleeping there again, and the winter was very difficult. Trying to seek help was very difficult. You had to queue in the hostels for a bed. I was dressed quite nicely with other people who definitely presented as rough sleeping, and I felt like I didn’t fit in, but I realised they were just humans like me too. The public wouldn’t buy you a bottle of water, but an alcoholic would often share half his can of lager with you, just so you had fluids. I saw all ends of the spectrum. I went days without food. Then I started to take on the image of a rough sleeper myself. I couldn’t go to public places because people judge you straight away. Then I started to fear for my life. It was becoming dangerous. The majority of people on the street with drug and alcohol problems have had those problems created by the suffering of living on the street. I once knew someone who punched another person we were sleeping nearby for no reason. When I told him that was wrong and asked him why. He said he regretted it, but he had to prove to the other people we were sleeping with they couldn’t afford to attack him. He did it to survive. That changed my perspective. He just wanted to be safe. People are forced into positions they wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise.
I felt like I couldn’t just pick up the phone to my family. My life was so chaotic, I felt ashamed and that my life was worthless. I worried that people would judge my family if I went home. For me they were amazing, but I was scared people would assume they were to blame in some way and that made it harder to face them.
One day I heard my nan had died and my family paid for a train ticket home. They were really hurt. They couldn’t understand how I could put them through it. I stayed in Southampton then, but I also started gambling to find another way through it. The casino became another home. It was open 24hrs and as long as you looked smart you could stay there. The casino was the same as the streets. People were so consumed by their own problems that no-one takes notice of you, but gambling was just another escape.
Eventually I was sectioned in a psychiatric hospital for about two and half months. There were so many things going on in my head. I didn’t know what was going on. That was the scariest thing ever. From there it was decided it would be best for me not to go home. It wasn’t fair on my family or myself, so I got placed into supported accommodation.
After that I got a job as an outdoor activity instructor apprenticeship which I really enjoyed. I liked working with people. We had people with disabilities and mental health problems, and it really helped them. I felt like I was doing some good, but then I began to get really heavily bullied there again. This time it was by two girls, which made it worse. I was still going to the casino to escape, and I was living in a hostel by that time, but it was full of drugs users. I used to go home and step over bodies of people high on drugs. I just couldn’t rest there so I started to live in a tent at work instead. But then work found out and started to ask questions.
In April 2011 I decided to run away again, but this time I checked into the Amber Foundation in Exeter which helps young homeless people turn their lives around. They helped me get control of my gambling and my mental health. It took me a couple of attempts to do it properly. I slept rough in Devon for a couple of weeks first. I even saw one lad hang himself from a tree and I had to cut him down, but after six months, I did really well. I had time to reflect. It was like a safe place. When I left, I felt like I had the right skills to start afresh.
I didn’t want to just run away to come back home again. I meant to go to Scotland but stopped in Newcastle instead. I was twenty-two, and I wanted to start life properly this time, but I had a little dog with me at the time and I didn’t want to give it up to get housed. I also didn’t have a local connection which made it even harder to access services, so I was street homeless again for about two weeks.
Everyone was saying to go back to Southampton but that wasn’t an option for me. I wanted to start a new life on my own terms and a clean slate. I was determined. It was Nov 2012. The snow was a foot deep. I would sleep in the Metro station. I would stuff newspapers in my clothes. Sometimes I thought I wouldn’t wake up, and then I started to worry about the dog. It wasn’t fair on her, so I gave her up to an adoption centre. Not just any centre though. I made sure she went to the right home. In the end I found a lovely place in Durham which housed dogs. The farm was fully of happy dogs so I knew she would be safe. That was a hard decision. She was my best friend, but it was the best for her, and it opened up housing options for me. I got into a hostel, but it was horrible in there. People were dying of heroin overdoses. I feared for my life again.
By the time Christmas came around I was really low. No-one knew where I was. I was exhausted. I was smelly. I looked like a stereotypical rough sleeper. That’s when I first heard about Crisis at Christmas, but I was scared I would be treated like a ‘homeless’ person - being given second hand clothes and food from the bins. The last thing I wanted was to be treated like a no-body. But when I turned up the first thing I got was a wrapped up Christmas present full of gloves, hats and lovely things - and a 'Merry Christmas'. It really felt like Christmas. The food was good and homemade. There were all these volunteers giving up time with their families to help people who had nothing. I started to feel much better.
That new year I engaged with Crisis and did the courses. I planned work options and made new friends. Crisis was a safe place. They treated me like a human being. I didn’t have to go there with a stigma. They saw me as Sam, not as a number or that ‘homeless’ guy. They saw something in me that I hadn’t seen myself. They started to challenge me. I started to feel like I belonged somewhere. Newcastle started to feel like my home. They thought I could make a difference. I was always scared that people would judge me if I shared my story because it would seem like it was all my decision, but I’ve come to see being homeless as very complex. There’s no single factor. It’s no-one’s fault.
The next year I became a Christmas coordinator. That was fantastic. I was working with big companies giving talks about homelessness and visiting schools. Eight-year old kids, from deprived areas themselves, were donating the same shoe boxes full of hats and gloves that I had received when I first came to Crisis. They had notes in there, saying, “Hello friend, I don’t know you, but Merry Christmas.” It made me cry.
It was a year before I spoke with my family again. My mum put posters around the country looking for me. She was calling hostels, hospitals and homeless shelters trying to find me. When I go back home now, my bed is still made the same as it was when I first left, and that’s heartbreaking, but they know I’m not going back now. For me it was the shame of taking that label home to my family that kept me away from them for so long. I didn’t want to inflict that on them. I didn’t want them to bring them into my mess, so I hid it from them.
After the hostel I was housed with the Albert Kennedy Trust for eighteen months. I think a part of me was trying to find my identity. Working through the myths. I realised it wasn’t about labels at all, and I think that’s the same for many identities, whether it’s LGBT, or homeless. When you become homeless you have to become ‘homeless’, and respond how they expect you to behave. Sometimes society pushes you into a corner and the only way you can respond is to become the image of that ‘minority’. Your persona becomes that identity as a result, but I realised that no-one should feel like a minority at all, because we’re all human beings, and we all have a responsibility to each other.
I’m twenty-nine now, and I moved into my council flat in 2014. It’s coming on really nicely, and I’ve also got a very good job as a support worker for Depaul UK working with young people who are homeless too. I needed to find who I was on my own without people judging me. Did I want to work in finance, or did I want to do a lower paying job that made a difference to people? Now I use my experience to help people like me. In late 2017, I got the opportunity to go to Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister with Crisis. I wasn’t there for a visit, I wanted to make a difference. I was a nobody, but now I had a voice. At first, she looked like she didn’t want to be there, but when I started to tell her my story she changed and seemed interested. It made me realise that however high up you are, people want to hear other people’s stories. Homelessness is exactly the same wherever you are in the world. Paris, Amsterdam or Brighton. Unfortunately, before you realise you’re homeless you’re already lost in the system and trying to get back out of that is very difficult. For me now, prevention is key. Homelessness can end but we’ve got to prevent it happening in the first place. If people work together, we can do that.”
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