I’m a recovering addict who has been clean for several years now. I started with cannabis and ecstasy and moved onto ketamine, Valium, and speed. Eventually I turned to heroin and crack. Active addiction is not pleasant: despair, isolation and psychological decimation all go with the territory and precipitate further drug use, which results in a vicious, intractable cycle of self-annihilation. But to paraphrase the Dalai Lama and other venerable bastions of wisdom: every tragic event presents an opportunity to learn. And I hope now to share a glimpse into the life of a person whom I met whilst using, a person who taught me to rethink my conceptions of homelessness.
Homelessness is a very broad term and includes families who have been forced out of their houses, victims of domestic abuse who have fled their partners’ homes (and may therefore be classified by the government as ‘voluntarily homeless’) and children who have run away from an unstable family home. In short, it covers a whole variety of people in different circumstances. ‘Rough sleepers’ – the people you see sleeping on the streets – represent only a small proportion of the total number of homeless people in the UK. Some homeless people also suffer from addiction. It just so happens that the person whom I met was homeless and a heroin addict.
To sustain a heroin addiction you must first find a supplier. This is not an easy or straightforward task. The obvious way – the way I took – to acquire the drug is asking someone who you know uses it. At the time I lived on a street in a not very glamorous area of Hull. Through various exploits I had come to know a guy called Garry. Garry – whose dad was from the Caribbean – had big gnarly deadlocks curled up on his head. His eyes, though sunk deep in his head from all the drugs, shone with intelligence and occasionally revealed a deep sorrow. He used to be a DJ, spinning reggae and soul at a local club. When I first met him, he was sitting on the street asking passers-by for spare change. I got to know Garry and found out that he was on a methadone script. (Methadone is a government-provided drug that serves as a substitute for heroin.) I asked Garry if he could get me heroin. It didn’t take long before we were traipsing through Hull in search of dealers.
We scored. Garry and I were in my bedsit preparing our fix with clean needles, little metal cooking dishes and cigarette filters. We injected and, for a short time, were completely detached from all our neuroses, traumas, anxieties and fears. This became a routine. And as the days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, I got to know Garry better and better.
One night is etched in mind. It was cold and we were outside burning material in a car park to keep warm. Garry was telling me about his youth. How he’d switched from crack to heroin. How he’d been arrested for various misdemeanours. How his addiction prevented him from going to Jamaica for his father’s funeral. And then he fixed me with his eyes and, in his rough semi-patois northern accent, said: “I’ve got to see a psycho-naughtist, mate.” I knew he meant psychiatrist or therapist but was too hardened to say it straight-out.
Being the naïve lad I was, I asked him why. I asked him what he would say to a psycho-naughtist. He then told me how he was taken from his family home as a boy and put in an institution. He told me that in this institution for boys he’d been raped and abused. He told me this through tears he was struggling to fight back. His face glowed red by the light of the fire.
I managed to get clean. With help of my family, who showed me unwavering love, I got into rehab and started to rebuild my life. I feel lucky. I feel so lucky. And angry – angry that circumstances forced people like Garry into a life of pain and misery. Angry that he’s been trodden on by people with more power than him. Angry that he has no one to love him, to tell him it’s okay and tell him that they can get him help. Angry that people could ever violate a child like that and send a young boy on a route that leads to jails, institutions and premature death.
I want you to feel anger too. I want you to read this and feel what I felt. These are real people with real problems. People who had once been kids, playful and careful, before suffering cruel injustices and ending up living a life we would wish on no one.
All homelessness is caused by a complex interaction of personal circumstances and societal, or structural, factors. The latter includes a lack of affordable housing, poverty, debt, inequality, institutional mistreatment and failures in government policies (such as the benefits system). As students we can make a difference in our society. We can look deeply into the suffering around us and bring to the fore those issues that are easier to leave in the dark, unrecognized and uncared for.
For more information on how you can make a difference in the lives of homeless people, contact the St Andrews Society for Homelessness (STASH) Facebook page.