Boguslaw counsels Zak
published 28 February 2017
Zak, age 63, stayed in Glass Door night shelters for one month in November 2016. During this time, Glass Door caseworker Boguslaw gave him advice on benefits and connected him with staff at housing association Hope Worldwide, who were able to get him into a flat before Christmas.
He is using a pseudonym as his grown children are not fully aware of how desperate his situation became. Zak recounts here how his life quickly spiralled downward after he went bankrupt and lost his house:
In the film Shawshank Redemption, the central character, Andy Dufresne, turns to his friend, Red, and says, 'I guess it comes down to a simple choice, get busy living or get busy dying!'
Those words have come to resonate with me these last few years.
Over a comparatively short period, I had gone from running a multi million pound aviation business, to being homeless and walking the streets of London and, at times, things looked pretty bleak.
I'd exhausted the hospitality of friends and sofa surfing options. There comes a moment when their uncomprehending looks suggest it's time to move on.
As the slow realisation sunk in that I was indeed homeless, I took myself along to the housing office in the borough where I had been last staying (on friends' sofas) in the expectation that they'd have something for me. I was greeted by an employee who demanded to know my address. A little puzzled, I pointed out I was homeless, consequently I had no address.
They looked at me as if I was insane and told me, 'You cannot be homeless unless you have an address.' I looked around to see if I was on candid camera or one of those popular jolly jape programmes, the host about to leap out and show me a re-run of my reaction. Apparently not.
They were serious. Without an address you cannot be registered as homeless! I was also told, that in any case, I was not a priority. Surely, the funds I had contributed to the exchequer through my personal and business dealings over forty years was worthy of some sort of payback, I asked.... Nope!
As I left the housing office it became clear that the state was not interested in my situation, the subtext was: 'we have nothing for you, why don't you go off and quietly die.' I spent the next month or so sleeping rough and spending time in libraries during the day (libraries are warm). With the onset of winter I checked out charities and contacted Glass Door, who seemed to operate in south London.
Glass Door came back fairly swiftly and offered me a place in a night shelter, which I accepted.
The night shelter is arranged in a church hall, a different church, each night of the week. You arrive by 8pm, lights out at 10pm and then out again by 07.00 the next day. The churches are staffed by volunteers associated with the church, who provide you with an evening meal and breakfast.
The volunteers were great and sit with you during the meal. One of the churches provided pheasant for the evening meal, much to the amusement of the other churches who then seemed to engage in a competitive element for the evening meal.
This was, however, an eye opening experience for someone used to the gentile, leafy lanes of SW London. I'd had some adventures whilst sleeping rough, but my twenty or so companions for the night were a mixed bunch - different nationalities, and some had a drink and/or drug problem.
As the nights became colder and the days walking the streets became longer, it became clear that for most of my companions in the night shelter there were few options. Finding a job is nigh on impossible, as all employers demand an address, and even if you can find temporary work, they require odd hours which means you miss the shelter's operating hours.
The other issue is the effect homelessness and hunger has on your psyche. For me hunger was a big issue. At one point, prior to contacting Glass Door, I had gone four days without eating, and for the first time ever, contemplated stealing food. The whole process gradually degrades you and attacks the very fibre of your being, so it was easy to see how drugs/alcohol and crime would be the consequence of continued homelessness and despair.
There's another quote from Shawshank Redemption (I like this film) where Andy says to Red, 'on the outside I was honest, straight as an arrow, but I had to come to prison to learn how to be a crook!'
That said, I managed to stay sane, on the straight and narrow, and that is in no small part due to Glass Door, who put me in touch with Hope Worldwide, who, in turn secured me accommodation in SE London.
I've been lucky. According to last night's Standard, there are 4134 rough sleepers nationwide - up 16% on last year and this will only get worse. London is now the most expensive place to rent a room anywhere on earth and it is only charities seeking solutions.
I've been lucky – Glass Door and Hope Worldwide have rescued me.
Next month I have a flying job with an aid agency, supporting work in a war zone, and when I get back I'm launching a novel in the Spring – all those hours in a library have some benefit.
However, I'm aware that many of my companions from the night shelter are still homeless and facing a bleak future. It would have been easy for me to enter a spiral dive, crash and burn.
Information on Hope Worldwide's Two Step housing programme can be found at http://www.hopeworldwide.org.uk