When I left school I went straight into the Army. I was in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and it was a good career for me. But after nine years I met a girl, when I was on leave in Brighton. We fell in love and married within three months. She tried to get used to the Army lifestyle but wasn’t good at moving around.
We had two kids by that point, so I decided to come out of the Forces and try and make a go of civvy life. We got a place in London, but again, within a year, my wife felt homesick and we moved back to Brighton, near to her family and friends.
Things went well for a long time. I started my own mechanic’s shop after gaining experience with various other fitters and I enjoyed the life, working hard and playing hard. I went for a drink most nights after work, just to be social, but I didn’t see then that I was neglecting my family, I was just kicking back after a hard day.
In fact, it was in the pub one night that one of my mates asked me if I’d heard about what was happening in ‘the house on the hill.’ That was what we called the building which had been a nunnery, and then a laundry, but then was standing empty. He asked me if I wanted to sign a petition as he’d heard that it was going to be used to house homeless people.
“Too right,” I said.
Over the next couple of years I knew that things were starting to go wrong with my wife. I tried to paper over the cracks by paying for expensive holidays and buying my kids whatever they wanted, when what they really wanted was me to be there. One day I came home, and found a suitcase packed with my clothes in the front porch. My wife told me to go, and I did. I couldn’t bring myself to argue, I just did as I was told.
I hit the bottle hard after that, I neglected my business and myself. I let my employees buy me out of my business and I went to Canada. I blew £50,000 in a month, staying in fancy hotels, living the high life. It was crazy. I was crazy. I got back to the UK with just £1 in my pocket. In the airport, the cash machine ate my card. I had to hitchhike back to Brighton, where I looked up my friends from the pub.
Funnily enough, once I wasn’t the guy standing the rounds, those people faded away. I felt like I had no one. I had never signed on, I didn’t know anything about benefits. I was totally ashamed and I gave up. I joined the other street drinkers and started sleeping rough outside the YMCA. I’d show up at the job centre, but how could I get a job when I didn’t have an address and couldn’t even afford to run a phone?
It was at that point that someone suggested Emmaus, but how could I go there, when I had signed a petition against it? Another month passed, it started getting colder. I woke up one October morning, freezing and shivering and I started the slow walk up the hill. It took all my courage to knock on the door and ask for help.
In those days, Emmaus had a walk-in policy, if you passed the interview you could stay, after a week’s trial. I instantly felt welcome. It was the first time I had told anyone what had happened to me, and that kindness felt incredible. After seven days they called me into the office to let me know whether I could stay. It was raining that morning, and I was filled with dread at the thought that I would be spending Christmas outside, cold and alone on a park bench.
But I was allowed to stay, and that felt like a ton of bricks lifting from my shoulders. It took me a long time to speak with anyone again, to tell them how I ended up at Emmaus, but in the last two years I have felt like sharing, have felt like telling my story to try and help others. I’ve been with Emmaus for more than a decade, and I am now keen to become a community leader myself. I like the Emmaus way of life.
I already try to look out for newcomers, to help them as they settle in, and also remind them, if they start to slip into bad habits, of what Emmaus can do for them: I tell them: “It’s a roof over your head, a reason to get up in the morning, a way to gain qualifications and move forward.” And I think they listen to me, because I have been where they were, and I have come through it, too.
In terms of my family, things are going OK. We’re in touch, they know where I am, and I love getting birthday messages. It is always nice to know that they are thinking of me, and that hopefully things can progress from here.