At Guildford Action we create a home environment, a model for relationships and we nurture the individual person and their identity. We are a community and set about to bring real change in people, many of whom have had chaotic and damaged lives.
Living in the woods, with only a duvet to your name, is no way to be a father. My son told me I was a dirty tramp and that he never wanted to see me again. And he wasn’t the only one. Becoming homeless not only brings shame on yourself but on all those closest to you. For almost all the time I was homeless, not one of my 8 children spoke to me. “No one can help you,” were my son’s parting words. And he was right, no one could.
Wind the clock back a year and I was sitting at home, watching Sky TV, married to my wife, 14 grandkids, lovely house, working 3 jobs to make sure that none of us wanted for anything. Happy as Larry. How did that man finish up in the woods with only the clothes he stood up in, and a duvet?
In 2012 my marriage broke down and it tore me apart. We divorced and I had nowhere to go so I finished up in a hostel. I kept myself to myself; I wasn’t part of the homeless community. This was just a temporary set up. And I had responsibilities. My mum was getting on and needed more help. I had time so I spent my days caring for her, but when she got to 80 she said her time was up and and the next thing she was in hospital. I had to switch off the life support machine. You shouldn’t have to do that for your own mum. Within a few weeks I’d had an argument with one of the staff at the hostel, (no one should be spoken to like that), and that was it, I left. Me and my duvet, off to the woods.
After that my existence became a blank. All I had to do each day was survive. Life went in 2 week cycles – receive my money, buy a week’s bus ticket (a way to keep warm) and get some food and drink. By the 2nd week I’d have no money left so I’d walk the streets, go in the bins, pick up biscuits from the floor and come to Guildford Action for a hot meal. Life was horrible. Each day I’d wait until it was dark before I’d go back into the woods. I’d chosen to be near to where my family lived, but I never wanted them to see me there. I’d shamed them enough.
12 months later my ex wife, died. Massive heart attack. She was 49. The kids wouldn’t let me go to her funeral. You don’t stop loving someone just because you’re divorced. We’d had 33 years together.
I started talking to Tommy at Guildford Action. There’s only so much shame you can carry before you need to tell someone. Tommy got me a tent. Now I was a man in the woods with a duvet and a tent. I’d been upgraded! I told my son about the tent. “Tommy’s a tosser,” he said. But unlike my son, Tommy wasn’t ashamed of me. No one at Guildford Action was. It’s a place of kindness, a refuge, somewhere where there’s always someone to talk to. To make things better.
My eldest son was a lover of champagne and drugs. They found him on Brighton sea front wearing only sunglasses and a top hat. On a toilet. Dead. Guildford Action helped me fill in the forms to get a grant to be able to go to his funeral. I got a suit. My kids were there but none of them spoke to me. A tent in the woods and a suit wasn’t enough to take away the shame.
Tommy put me in touch with the council. He said he’d get me into the YMCA. No one from the council had ever followed through on a promise so I didn’t see why he would. But Tommy said to stick with him, and he actually did it. He got me into the YMCA. It was luxury; clean sheets, a pillow, meals. I had Christmas there. I was still on my own, and now my brother had died aswell, but I was starting to sort myself out. I was beginning to talk to Tommy as a friend, a friend I could trust. I felt less ashamed.
Now don’t think that Tommy’s the answer to all problems. I do remember once, while I was in the woods, coming to show him my feet, all red and swollen. I’ve never seen him panic so much. He went off on one, saying about gangrene and needing to get me to a doctors. Jo rushed in with a foot spa and started washing my feet, like I was a condemned man!! Having a tent was great, but without my feet life in the woods would be hopeless. The three of us were in a right state of worry. I didn’t have gangrene thank goodness. The doctor said I just needed to take my shoes and socks off more often. Let my feet breathe. I’ve not bothered to ask Tommy for medical advice since then.
Since the YMCA, I’ve moved lots more times to other hostels and shared houses. Every time I’m supposed to move, I get anxious and don’t want to go but Tommy makes sure I do. He works with hostel support worker, and together they’ve been there for me every step of the way. I did have to put my foot down once (lucky I’ve still got one!) when they tried to move me into sheltered accommodation for the elderly! It’ll be OK, Tommy said; I told him I didn’t think so.
Now I had places to live I wanted to to have my possessions back from the hostel House, where I was before the woods; my driving licence, mum’s death certificate, photos. But they had disposed of them all. Gone. I understand they can’t keep everyones stuff forever, but this was hard to take. Even Tommy couldn’t help with that. After three years of losing so much, this seemed like the final straw but Guildford Action weren’t going to let this be the thing that sent me back the wrong way, and they took it upon themselves to make sure I carried on with all the progress I’d made to rebuild my life.
I’m now in my own flat. My children have started to come round to see me. Sitting with my son, watching telly and chilling out is amazing. I can’t see all the grandkids yet but that’s something for the future; shame doesn’t disappear overnight. Of course, I’m not fully used to it all yet. I don’t like being there on my own, being responsible for bills, having to wash clothes – my time in the woods hasn’t completely left me.
They say the toughest way is up, and they’re right, it is, but while ever Guildford Action exists I’ve got people helping me to carry on going in the right direction. At least I know where I’m heading now and it feels like I’m going the right way.