Gary's story

190319 Cambridge Companion Garry Fitzgerald story cropped for web

"I have always had a strong family network, so when both my parents and brother died within a short time of each other, I gave up. Emmaus saved me, and it wasn’t until I received their help that I felt like I could carry on living.

My brother died first, and then my mum and dad died 11 months and three days apart. After that, I had a nervous breakdown. My dad’s house was repossessed, I started drinking and smoking cannabis to cope with life and lost my job in London as a sous chef. It wasn’t that I hated the world or society, but I had lost everything and gave up on myself.

I went to Ireland to trace family and stayed there for four years. I lived there, worked there, and had a relationship break down while there before returning to London. When I got back to London, I didn’t have anywhere to live, so went to Kingston as it was where I worked before and I knew the area. I found a secluded place near Hampton Court to pitch a tent and that’s what I called home for four weeks. A typical day on the street would be me trying to stay busy; I would get up in the morning, wash myself and brush my teeth in the sink of a shopping centre, go to the library, do my job searches for job seeker allowance, and visit the soup kitchens. I was lucky as I was homeless during the summer so it wasn’t very cold, but it was at night that I struggled – it was extremely lonely.

I found out about Emmaus during the ‘great feast’ at St Peter’s Church, which is open every Wednesday for homeless people. I met an outreach team from Kingston there who helped me sign up to a doctor and applied to six different Emmaus communities for me.

I moved to Emmaus Village Carlton in Bedford in November 2015, and it was like a breath of fresh air. I was in the countryside, I had a reason to get up in the morning, a routine, newly made friends and I started to enjoy life again. After a few months at Village Carlton, I heard that Emmaus Hull & East Riding were looking for residents to join their new outreach team to help rough sleepers and decided to join their community, where I lived for two years.

While living at Emmaus Hull & East Riding, I volunteered on the outreach team and absolutely loved it. It was hard work; outreach isn’t just an eight-hour shift where you clock off at the end of the day, and some shifts could be a lot longer, especially if you had to take someone to A&E. It wasn’t all about handing out teas and coffees either – we worked with the same people every day, helping them to find accommodation, access medical support, receive their benefits, and tried to be a general all-round advocate for them. At first, people on the streets weren’t accepting to our team. We would get told f**k off a lot, but when they saw us day after day that trust began to build up, and once they found out that some of us on the team had been homeless it was a lot easier. Through the outreach team and Emmaus Hull & East Riding, I gained qualifications in safeguarding, drug and alcohol first aid, and mental health first aid, as well as my SIA license for security work. The experience I gained was unbelievable and I’m extremely proud and happy that I got the opportunity to do it.

I left Emmaus Hull & East Riding after being successful on the council’s bidding list for a house. I took the offer and was happy that I had somewhere to call my own. But everything moved very fast and I found it difficult to get a job. I began to panic – bills were coming through the door and I couldn’t deal with it. I managed three months before handing in my notice and found myself in Milton Keynes looking for temp work and living in a tent for five months before moving to Emmaus Cambridge in December 2018.

I loved Village Carlton and Hull & East Riding, but Emmaus Cambridge feels like my home. I have made a lot of friends here, and I enjoy communal living as I’m very talkative and sociable. It feels like a family here, and there is no hierarchy between staff and residents – you can chat to staff, open up to them and have a laugh with them. It creates a nice dynamic. At Emmaus Cambridge, I work in the warehouse, shop, and logistics office handling collections and deliveries. I know that I left the Hull community too early when I wasn’t ready, so this time at Emmaus Cambridge I am going to stay here, get more courses under my belt, and work towards being a support worker doing outreach. I will also be going on holiday for five days with another resident later this year, which I am looking forward to.

Emmaus has really saved me. I was suicidal when my parents and brother died. With the help of Emmaus and the counselling I have received I learned how to deal with my grief. I now feel as though I am an extension of my parents and brother, and therefore when I am doing something that makes me happy, they are happy, or when I see a nice sunrise in the morning or something beautiful, I am looking at it for them and not just myself."