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20 July 2021

"When I go into a panic, my head feels like it’s melting. I just lock myself away and think everything will be okay if I just hide. I can’t speak to anyone. I don’t know how to ask for help.”

A mother's love

For as long as James can remember, he’s experienced panic attacks and anxiety. But up until recently, he wasn’t able to understand it, let alone articulate it. For years, his underlying, crippling anxiety drove him to drugs - the only way he knew how to calm his nerves and numb the pain.

James (42) had been living with his mother for most of his adult life into his late thirties. They were close and she took care of everything. James speaks openly about the challenges he faced growing up and acknowledges that he always needed a bit of extra support. A hyper-active child with special needs, he received a lot of help at school and his mum took him to see numerous psychiatrists.

James recalled:

My mum did everything for me. She protected me. She put her arms around me and told me everything would be alright.

When James’ mum unexpectedly passed away after a brief period of illness in 2017, his world was shattered. Overnight, his entire support system disappeared. He was bereft, lost and alone.

Spiral into homelessness

Since James wasn’t listed on any official paperwork and as his household had shrunk, the council made him leave the three-bedroom house he had shared with his mum – the place he had grown up in, that made him feel comfortable and safe – and moved him into a one-bed flat. James was now responsible for looking after himself, for paying the rent, sorting out the bills and the food shop. Having relied on his mother for so long, James found these tasks overwhelming.

“I went from having everything done for me, to being left to fend for myself,” James said, with a trace of despair in his voice.

I didn’t know how to budget, to apply for a credit card, even to get the electricity turned on. I thought that if I asked for help, people would laugh at me, call me stupid and tell me I should know better. I got into arrears with the rent and was evicted from my flat. The next step for me was homelessness.

Sleeping on the streets

James spent the next two years sleeping on the streets in his local area. Ashamed by his situation, he mainly slept in doorways of a nearby hospital, to avoid bumping into old friends. He had initially tried to sleep in a different area, but the need for familiarity pulled him back. James scavenged for food from supermarket bins, eating out-of-date pastries that often made him sick. His drug use worsened during this period. When high, he could keep his invasive thoughts at bay and stop worrying about judgement from other people.

James described this period as the worst in his life, when his confidence and self-worth hit rock bottom.

I felt like I wasn’t worth anything. When you’re on the streets, you notice how the world still goes by, but you’re here and nobody notices you. You don’t feel part of anything. Everyone looks at you like you’re rubbish, so you start to feel like rubbish.

Finding Glass Door

Despite the shame James felt in asking for help, he rang Glass Door’s helpline for advice and support at the end of 2019. He was offered a space in Glass Door’s winter night shelter at a local church, and setting aside his fears, James geared himself up to visit. Once he arrived, James said he never looked back.

“I absolutely loved staying in the night shelter. I was initially apprehensive about sleeping with people I didn’t know. I thought it would be better staying on the streets. But I’m so glad I went. The staff were so friendly and non-judgmental. They gave me my confidence back. And believe it or not, I made friends with the other guests. I even met my girlfriend there.

To come from living on the streets to being in a place like that where you felt comfortable and able to talk to people again, it was brilliant.

During the day, James attended one of our partner drop-in centres where he received support from caseworker Patricia. She helped him access benefits and find accommodation. Patricia managed to find a place for James to live just before the pandemic hit in March and homeless shelters shut down. James has been living in the house Patricia found him ever since and is happy there.

Patricia was very, very helpful. I can’t thank her enough for how far I’ve come. More than a year later, I’m still coming to her for help. If I have any problems, I speak to Patricia. It’s such a relief to know there’s someone who I can call if I need help with something.

Next steps and parting words

Away from the streets, sober, and with restored confidence, James said he’s been on a path of self-discovery, finally acknowledging and addressing his anxiety. Next, James wants to focus on finding work and giving back by volunteering for a homeless charity. He’s also keen to find a more permanent home to call his own in the future.

As a final note, James wanted to impart some advice to those wondering how they can help people living on the streets.

When you’re sleeping on the streets, people ignore you and walk past you in a rush. All we want is to hear a friendly voice and to have some form of interaction. Next time you see someone on the streets, stop and acknowledge them. Ask them how they’re doing. Or just smile. A smile goes a long way when you’re on the streets.

You can help find routes out of homelessness for people like James. £30 could provide two one-to-one advice sessions with a caseworker, giving someone the support they need to move beyond homelessness.