A homeless man. Photograph © BuzzFarmers on Flickr

The experiences of one man tell us a lot about an unsung support network, says Jeremy Bushnell

I first met Gary in 2014 when we did our opening piece of research for the homeless charity Crisis. We were interviewing homeless service users in the north of England: Gary was the first person I spoke to.

You could tell he had been through a lot. His hands were cut and scratched, he had a large bruise on his forehead, and the tracksuit he wore was stained with mud.

Gary began by explaining how he’d lived in the south until recently. He’d been the head chef of a smart restaurant and had his own flat.

In the space of a couple of months he had suffered a family bereavement, developed depression and lost his job. Eventually he lost his home too.

Having left his familiar surroundings to try and escape what had happened Gary found himself in a city where he knew no one. His family didn’t even know he was homeless because he had been too ashamed to tell them.

My colleague Rich wrote a blog a few months ago about the dehumanisation of homeless people. There seems to me a real irony in the way people can dehumanise the most human experience of all.

In that interview Gary showed me the depths of human emotion as he described his journey from being proud, confident and sociable to being helpless, lonely and ashamed.

Remarkable transformation

A year later I was in the south again beginning another project for Crisis that focused on homeless people’s experiences of enforcement measures. I went into the waiting room to find the next person I was due to speak to – and there was Gary.

He looked a completely different man: clean shaven, healthy and smartly dressed. As we talked he explained how his life had improved. He had battled his depression, returned to his home city and re-engaged with his family.

None of this could have happened, he told me, without the support from homeless charities and shelters he visited all over the country.

This transformation was not restricted to his personal appearance. Gary was clearly happier and more confident. He was laughing and speaking with optimism and loved telling me about all the activities he took part in.

Talking to Gary I’ve learned how charities run music groups, drama groups, football groups, CV groups, work groups. Basically you name it there’s a group for it.

More remarkable still was that the change had come about even though Gary wasn’t yet out of the homelessness cycle. He was staying in a temporary hostel, was still looking for a job and had many more challenges to face.

Building confidence

Through my conversations with to Gary I discovered that homeless charities like Crisis do so much more than provide shelter and warmth.

They train people, give them responsibilities, and build their confidence to the point where they can re-enter work and maintain a home of their own. They help people make a plan – but perhaps more importantly they work to equip them with the tools to stick to that plan.

Homelessness is a vicious cycle; and one made no easier by the way society looks on people living on the streets. However, Gary taught me that charities who work with homeless people give them so much more than a roof over their head and a bed for the night.

They give them hope.

*In order to preserve anonymity the name and location of the individual upon which this blog is based have been changed

For more information please read CRISIS’ report on the research mentioned in this blog: http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/714_ITS_NO_LIFE_AT_ALL_violence%20asb_FINAL_sp.pdf