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Homeless at Christmas: Paul's Story

14 December 17 interview: Lucy Manning
photos: Curtis Powell

Away from the coffee shops and vintage clothes, Emmanuel House sits at the bottom of Hockley, providing the homeless and vulnerably housed community in Nottingham with a warm welcome and access to support services. As Christmas draws near, we caught up with Paul, a regular face over at the day centre, to find out what Emmanuel House means to him...

Tell me a bit about you...
I’m a bit of an introvert, and an indoorsy person, unfortunately. I read a lot. I used to almost exclusively read fantasy books but they tend to come in trilogies which, being homeless, can be hard to get hold of, so I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers. There’s a female writer I like called Karin Slaughter; her Cop Town book is brilliant. I spend a lot of time at the library; there are books, it’s safe, it’s warm, and they’re open all day.

Can you tell me a bit about the circumstances that led to you being homeless?
I was born and raised in Lenton, Nottingham. I worked as a forklift driver, and had a bunch of agency jobs, including one at Armitages Pet Foods where I was running a production line of Christmas stockings for cats and dogs. I had to work hard to keep my line running, but we had a good laugh.

Shortly after a long-term relationship ended, I got offered a job in Holland and I thought I might as well go. I didn’t drink much before I left. I disliked alcoholics immensely because I grew up around them, but me and a few other English blokes were in a small village with not much to do and we used to go to the pub a lot. I basically ended up being an alcoholic, and drugs came with it; cocaine to sober me up when I was drinking, and I was taking a lot of ecstasy too. I wasn’t addicted, but they were there.

I quit all that nearly three years ago now. I didn’t go through a programme, I just completely isolated myself – everyone I knew socialised at the pub – and I became really depressed. Then the agency started messing around with my shifts. Shift work is really tiring anyway, you can’t get into a routine, and I started to get more ill. I was in a really bad place, and the agency fired me.

Things got bad over there. At one point I went eleven days with nothing to eat, and I spent two weeks in a bike shed with practically no human contact. I basically lost my mind. I was a mess. I was homeless for three months over there until I managed to get enough money to get back to England, only to find out that because I’d been out of the country for over five years, I wasn’t entitled to benefits straight away.

I got back to Nottingham, and luckily enough I got in touch with the Framework Street Outreach Team. They did my first assessment in Emmanuel House, and I’ve been there practically every day since.

What do you use Emmanuel House for?
That guaranteed hot meal is incredibly important, but for me, the social aspect even moreso. I have good friends there, and I met my girlfriend there, too. When you’re homeless or on the streets it feels like everyone is against you, particularly anyone in a position of authority. But they’re not like that in there; you can talk to them and they don’t mess you around. I trust every member of staff. If it wasn’t for Emmanuel House I would’ve been in a really bad place; mentally and physically.

You can get clothes and a shower, so I’m able to get cleaned up five days a week; when you get depressed, it’s easy to let yourself go, and that makes the situation even worse. Help with benefits is available too, and I’m there today to organise what private landlords I can go and meet. It’s really worrying me. I’m an ex-alcoholic, so I don’t wanna be around people who are drinking and I’ll almost certainly be in a shared house. On the street, if someone cracks a can out I can get away from them, but at home... that’s supposed to be my safe place and it won’t be safe if someone’s drinking there.

Most people don’t know that getting a roof over your head is rarely the finish line. Is there anything else the public could be more aware of?
People say that homeless people don’t think ahead, but we can’t. No-one gets how long 24 hours is when you have nothing to do but dwell on stuff. There’s so much disappointment that you can’t think about the future, and you’re desperately trying not to think about the past, so you think about the next sandwich and leave it at that.

There seems to be a real stigma surrounding the homeless community, rough sleepers in particular...

You’ve never seen me in a doorway round town, I’ve never begged or stolen, I don’t owe anyone anything, and I don’t drink or use drugs. All of that is incredibly difficult when you have nothing. What got me through is, okay, I might be treated like an animal, and I might live somewhat like an animal, but I don’t have to behave like one.

When you say you’re treated like an animal…
You get the looks. For the most part I get away with it because I don’t do the doorway thing and I keep myself reasonably well-looking. But when I’ve hit a bad time with depression and I’m zonked out, or if I’ve picked up a cigarette nub and someone catches me, I’ll get that look. Sometimes it’s pity, and there’s a difference between that and sympathy. I’ve had people before who’ve felt guilty; there shouldn’t be homeless people on the streets in a rich country like this. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not your personal fault.

Where do you sleep?
Emmanuel House are doing the winter shelter again, so I’m there right now. The volunteers are amazing; we get in there and they make us hot drinks and toasties and things like that. When I first got over here, I’d sleep on a bench next to the park I grew up with, round where I used to live. It’s quiet, and it made me feel more comfortable, even though it’s more dangerous than sleeping in the city centre because it’s out the way. Me and my friend slept by each other, but he got mugged just round the corner from me. They beat him up, threatened him with a knife, and took the very little that he had on him.

Most of the time it’s for “fun.” You’ll get a drunk guy who wants to prove he’s a man by beating up a half-starved, exhausted homeless guy. There was a couple that were asleep and this guy decided to urinate on the girl. You can’t go any lower. I mean, we’re literally not in society anymore at this point, we’re living in the gutter, and now you do this?

You’re excluded from society, you’ve got no way of having a life whatsoever. You see life going on around you and you’re not having one, you’re on hold. Nothing you can do, nowhere you can go. I know people want us out of the city centre because we make the place untidy – for the city of culture and all the rest of it – but we have to be in the city to be safe.

How would you describe life at the moment?
Busy. My anxiety is quite bad at the minute, but things are getting better. I just started getting benefits through last week and I’ve actually got some money for a change, so I can buy a can of cola. I’m trying to prevent myself from going mental with it and buying a can of pop whenever I’m thirsty; I know how easy it is to blow that money when you need it to get yourself started.

Do you have any Christmas plans?
My girlfriend hates it, but I’m determined to make sure she has a good one. I’m hoping I can get us a hotel room for a couple of days so we can watch Christmas films and wear ugly Christmas jumpers, which she’ll hate. But I can’t think that far ahead, really.

What are your hopes and plans for the future?
I do a lot of focus groups, especially now that homelessness is becoming such a problem and because of the mamba problem. When I sort a bed, I’d like to get a job in training service staff on how to deal with and treat homeless people. It can make the world of difference.

Anything else you want to say?
Homelessness really is increasing. Over the last five months I’ve seen the soup runs almost triple, and services like Emmanuel House need all the funding they can get.

Emmanuel House have launched their 2017 Gift of Hope campaign, aiming to raise £45,000 to keep the centre running over the Christmas months. It costs £1,000 a day to run Emmanuel House in its entirety, and all money raised will go towards staffing the centre, providing Christmas dinner for up to 120 people, and giving service users a Christmas gift. If you can, please donate, so that Emmanuel House can continue with their vital work.

Emmanuel House Gift of Hope

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