Getting ‘sorted’

(by Stuart Sorensen – @AMJ_Training )

There are many reasons for homelessness. Some may be more avoidable than others but none are particularly pleasant. In my case I think I have to be honest and put it down to my own youthful stupidity.

It wasn’t that I particularly needed to escape anything and I hadn’t been evicted from anywhere – I was just naive. Having spent two years in a sales job I hated with an assistant manager who bullied me, I decided not only to leave my workplace but also my hometown and seek my fortune.

That was back in 1984 and I was all of 19 years old. With the uninformed enthusiasm of a teenage dreamer I strapped my old beaten-up guitar to the back of a rucksack and stuck my thumb out to hitch-hike South.

The plan was two-fold:

    1 Get a job in the theatre;

    2 Find ‘myself’ (whatever that means).

I must have knocked on hundreds of stage doors back then. Everyone said the same thing – I needed an Equity card. A few people even said it politely. That was a really important lesson. Whatever I want from life I need to do the necessary groundwork first.

The other important thing I learned was that wherever you go you always take yourself with you. Whatever people think it means to ‘find yourself’ I can assure them that they’re wrong. Looking back I know that trying to find ‘myself’ makes as much sense as the other 1980s obsession – trying to discover my ‘feminine side’. That was an impossible task too whatever the feminists might have told us.

All I actually found was freezing cold winds, soggy socks and the occasional rat-infested barn to sleep in. The winter of 1984/5 was cold – especially in the Cambridgeshire fens where I ended up. I remember trying to busk for a living in Cambridgeshire towns like Huntingdon and St. Ives, when my fingers were so cold I couldn’t move them and contact with the guitar’s strings hurt so much I spent more time warming my hands in my pockets than playing. Not the most profitable way to earn a crust.

The other thing I managed to find, eventually, was an even worse paid, less pleasant job than the one I’d left behind. This one came without the support network of friends and family to help me through – they were 300 miles away in Cumbria. I didn’t last long in that particular job I’m afraid.

A bit more drifting around took me to Lincoln and the real turning point in my life. By now it was 1988 and I found myself resident at the YMCA on St. Rumbold Street. I will never cease to be grateful to the man who inspired me not to give up on myself, an unassuming, kindly, slightly rotund bloke called Tony. It was Tony who helped me fill in my benefits forms when I first arrived. It was Tony who kept telling me I could do better and then asking me what I was doing to improve my situation. It was Tony who recognised that unemployed doesn’t mean unemployable and it was Tony who eventually gave me a job as night porter. Without that unflinching support I’m not sure I’d ever have regained my faith in the future.

 Moving on from there I secured a job in a local care home and moved out of the hostel. That was hard – the place had been my home for almost two years and leaving was a real wrench. Again it was Tony who took me aside and gently suggested that I didn’t spend quite so much of my free time back at ‘The Y’. He didn’t actually use the term ‘institutionalisation’ but I now know (because he has since told me) that that’s what he meant.

From there I moved on to train as a mental health nurse, qualify, gain a few promotions and a Post Grad Diploma before starting my own business as a trainer in mental health and social care. None of which is the point of this story except that it’s an illustration of how it is possible, step by step, to move beyond the streets. It’s also an illustration, I hope of the value of a mentor, someone who is prepared to believe in you and also to ask the hard questions like:  “How many jobs have you applied for today then?”.

 Tony was well aware how easy it is to give up when the despair hits and he wasn’t about to let that happen to any of us in ‘his’ hostel if he could help it.

I met Tony again earlier this year having spent over a decade trying to track him down. Eventually I managed through a mutual friend on Facebook – another of the hundreds of young men and women he’d helped. When we met I was struck by the simple ordinariness of the man who’d been such a monumental influence in my life. In my head I’d ‘bigged him up’ to represent some sort of benevolent, giant personality with superhuman wisdom and patience to match.

What I found was an ordinary man with balding hair and a dodgy hip. An ordinary man who, like everyone else, was capable of accomplishing extraordinary things. The thing that made Tony stand out in my life was that he wasn’t satisfied to simply be capable of inspiring others – he actually went out of his way to achieve it. He taught me never to give up. He taught me that defeat tends to be temporary so long as you keep going. He taught me that everyone has value – no matter how unpleasant they may appear. He taught me the meaning of responsibility and he taught me that everyone can do better. And he taught hundreds of other young men and women the same lessons.

If you’re reading this there’s a good chance that you are homeless right now. I won’t pretend to understand what that’s like today. In the 1980s times were hard but I don’t think things were quite so bad as they are (and will continue to be) under the present government in UK. So I won’t patronise you by telling you that things will be easy if you just ‘believe’ or any other such nonsense. But I will tell you that it is possible to pick yourself up.

So the next time you hear someone tell you that homelessness is what happens to the hopeless and helpless or any other such nonsense you send them to talk to me. And if that doesn’t work I’ll pass them on to Tony.

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2 Responses to Getting ‘sorted’

  1. Good post Stuart, I enjoyed reading it. What you also seem to have developed is a knack for good writing!

    What interests me about what you are saying reflects an observation I made in my own research and wrote about in my blog. I was trying, in my usual complicated and academic way, to explain how homeless people seem to view the value the contribution that an individual has made to their life, just like your Tony, rather than the institution itself. Institutions and their staff sometimes, and erroneously I believe, seem to think that it is the institution that helps people, like the name or the badge ‘YMCA’ (or other hostel) is what does the job. But this isn’t so. There is more to it than providing the right services at the right time. It’s not just about getting the system right: the right characters and attitudes are needed too. It’s people like your Tony that make the ultimate difference.

  2. Indeed, and realistically Tony could have been anyone, anywhere (I sound like a Martini ad now).

    For me the important ingredient was the ordinariness of the thing. This was an ordinary man doing simple things but with genuine compassion and faith in others. He wasn’t special – just unique (like everybody else).

    But you’re right – it was the man, not the setting that made the difference.

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