This short story is true. It is a story about how each of us is just a few unfortunate steps away from being left with nothing at all and how we are all vulnerable to homelessness. This incident changed my life in more ways than one. It took place whilst I was serving as a Police Officer and the gentleman’s name has been changed and place names omitted.
John was a career Police Officer with a force I shall not name. He had served as a PC for almost 16 years. He had a wife and 2 young children whom he adored. He was healthy, active and had a blessed life. He owned a 4 bedroomed house with large garden in a nice area and he and his wife drove nice cars. With not a worry or issue in the world he was a lucky man and had a life many would envy.
In 2010 following an incident at work John was injured both physically and mentally. The physical wounds healed very quickly but the psychological wounds never did. He returned to work reluctantly after a short period of sickness. He never liked taking time off and had never had a day’s sick leave in his career and this alone bugged him, but he understood the importance of making sure he was up to doing his duty and returned as soon as he felt physically capable.
After only a few weeks back at work he began to realise he just wasn’t himself both at work and with the public and at home with his family. He wasn’t sleeping well because he would have regular bad dreams and flashbacks to the incident which put him out of work. He was becoming short tempered which was completely not his true self. He became a little reclusive, not wanting to attend family events, not wanting to take the kids out for weekends away or even to the park. The more it went on the more he knew he needed help and that something wasn’t right but he just couldn’t bring himself to ask for help.
One afternoon at work following an argument with a colleague John lost his temper, punched his colleague and damaged a force computer before walking out of the station and going home early. To cut a long story short he was subsequently suspended. Whilst suspended he was pressured into going to the Doctors and seeking help. He was of course diagnosed with depression, post traumatic stress and anxiety and despite the fact he did not want to take medication he was prescribed tablets.
Whilst on suspension and taking his meds he did make a substantial improvement and although not fully his old self, things at home were improving. That was short lived however.
He was taken off suspension and allowed back to work but on advice from his GP and family and friends he took time off sick to try and get back to some “normality”. He was still under investigation by Professional Standards for assaulting his colleague and damaging a computer however they were pursuing misconduct and disciple matters rather than criminal matters given the circumstances (and their negligence with offering him the correct support at the time of his incident and injury).
He ended up being off work for several months and he believed it was his sickness and insistence that PSD did things on his terms for medical reasons that ultimately resulted in him being required to resign from the force. He did so reluctantly and he described it as being the day his life ended.
As time went by and as he struggled like crazy to get another job and keep the family afloat things went from bad to worse. They couldn’t pay bills, they were increasingly in debt, they argued a lot, tensions were running high and he felt all his progress with his depression was going to waste more and more each day.
Eventually his wife and kids left him. He missed mortgage payments and debts were out of control. He lost everything. Within less than 2years John was left broke and homeless. His friends had all but deserted him, his wife wanted nothing more to do with him, he never saw his kids and he ended up living rough or moving from hostel to hostel.
Eventually he ended up in my area living in a tent in some woods next to the motorway. He begged for change and food at a nearby motorway services and used their toilets and showers to keep clean. He learned to catch rabbits for extra food and rainwater for drink. He kept himself to himself and nobody would have had any idea there was a man living in a small wood as they drove by every day.I had no idea myself until a colleague told me and I made it my business to go and visit him and that is how I got to speak with him at length. I would occasionally sneak off without work mates knowing when working single crewed and see if he was around and check how he was doing and sometimes took him a sandwich from morrisons and bottle of water.
He told me one day how he had come to the decision to live in these woods. He had spent months on the streets and in homeless shelters but said that every night he closed his eyes he was scared he would never wake up. He talked of thugs and youths robbing homeless people for what little money or possessions the had. He told me one day he was robbed by 2 teens who even heartless tore a photo of his kids to pieces whilst they laughed and one held a knife. That day he was thrown out of WH Smiths for trying to buy some card and glue to stick his picture back together.
He told me how he had come closer and closer to turning to drink and drugs as the temptation living rough in towns and cities was too much. How he had had to go against every moral fibre in his body and break the law by stealing food, drink and a new sleeping bag to survive. He told me how shops and even fast food venues like Mcdonalds would turn him away as soon as he entered. The final straw was when the Police and Council began targeting the homeless and removing their sleeping bags etc…In his own words
“I never felt so lonely and I was surrounded by thousands of people”.
He knew of my area as he would often visit as a child and so made the decision to travel up by hitch-hiking with friendly wagon drivers. He said one or two even allowed him to sleep in their wagon at night and fed him too. When he arrived in the area he moved from place to place trying to find a nice, quiet and secluded spot to make his “home”. He said he tried half a dozen or so before settling with the woods. He was able to work “cash in hand” as a labourer for a local company for a week which paid him £150. With that money he bought a one man tent, warm clothes and sleeping bag and camping supplies and set about making his camp site home.
John was always very humble, very grateful for any time you would spend talking to him and always politely offered you a brew. He would also turn down any acts of charity and offers of help and said he was used to his little life now and quite enjoyed the peace.
Several months went by without any sign of John and winter was upon us. We were contacted by a hospital ward to ask us to check on his welfare as he had been admitted with various health problems caused by his lifestyle and the cold and he had walked off the ward. For 4 days I visited his camp to see if there had been signs of life. It was blisteringly cold and even in a wool hat, gloves, fleece and body armour I was cold. There was no way John was going to survive nights in this weather and there wasn’t so much as a recent fire at his camp. All his possessions were there but he wasn’t.
It was on the 5th day that news came back to us that John had been found. Upon leaving hospital he had taken what little cash he had and paid for one night in a B&B in a different force area. Whilst there John had seen fit to end his own life and was found the following morning by staff. He had overdosed on heroine.
The news was a massive blow and John’s entire life story impacted me in a way of which, up until hearing the news of his death, I had no idea. His life, I believe, shows just how fragile our lives are. How everything we deem to be important and take for granted can just be pulled away in the space of a few short months and there is nothing you can do about it. How those is desperate need of help can often go unseen and their needs unnoticed before it is too late. I found myself asking if there was anything more I could have done to help him or if I could have changed his life for the better. I couldn’t have. I offered him all the help I could reasonably offer and he was always so appreciative but would politely turn it down.
It is for this reason that I get so passionate about homelessness in this country and will always stand up for people in that dreadful situation and will try to do my very best to help when and where I can, even if it is simply by raising awareness.
People need to open their eyes when walking around cities and towns and stop pretending that homeless people don’t exist or that it’s not their problem or that “you shouldn’t give them money they will only get drunk or buy drugs”. I invited a homeless guy to join me and my mates for a beer on my stag doo in York in May but he turned the offer down because he was T total. Instead me and my mates give him enough money to go eat and spend the night in a hotel. He was chuffed to bits and split between us cost about £10 each. That’s about 3 and a half pints sacrificed to help somebody in need.
My better half bought a homeless guy in York a hot drink and sausage roll last winter, his reaction genuinely put a tear in my eye. As I looked around I was filled with rage as people looked at us like we were scum for feeding the poor bloke.
Ignorance and dismissal of this problem does nothing to change it and given that we are all just a few unfortunate steps away from being in the same situation, we should all do a lot more to make sure the problem no longer exists rather than sweeping it under the carpet or walking around with blinkers on.
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