On World Homeless Day and World Mental Health Day, we take a look at someone whose journey has inspired staff, volunteers and service-users at the Good Shepherd, and is still hoping for further progress ahead.
John, one of the Good Shepherd’s service user volunteers, who gives up his time to support the charity by doing some cleaning and other work within the dining service, headed over to Birmingham last week.
Not for anything special, just to have a walk around and make the most of a day off.
Only, it probably carried a bit more significance than for most enjoying a day trip from Wolverhampton to the Second City.
Around New Street station, John noticed a group of drug users, completely detached from reality due to their use of mamba – an artificial cannabinoid drug that causes serious side effects of psychosis and can induce a deep zombie-like state. That used to be him.
His walk took him past St Martin’s Church in the City Centre. A place where he used to sleep outside through all weathers and conditions, perhaps even hoping for some divine intervention.
But at the end of the few relaxing hours spent in Birmingham, having a walk, looking in some shops, enjoying a bite to eat, John happily hopped on the train and travelled home, back to his own accommodation in Wolverhampton.
So why would that be so notable? Just a nice and normal day out, one enjoyed by thousands of people every single day.
Well, in John’s case, it offered a continuing and hugely positive reminder of the progress he has made since the lengthy period during which he was sleeping rough, battling drug addiction and other associated health issues and ending up in prison.
Progress which some – given his declining health and prospects several years ago – could never have dreamed he would start to make.
“I first got to know John when I started volunteering with the Good Shepherd,” reports Housing First Key Worker Paul Burns.
“I would say he was probably the most prolific mamba user that we have ever seen.
“My role then was to bring him in every day to a little room at our previous site on Darlington Street, to try and help him, but within ten or 15 minutes he would always be gone.
“It was difficult for him to even to stay in the Night Shelter back then, as the addiction was so strong, he just couldn’t stay in one place – it was like we had to tie him to the chair!
“There was this big bush outside, which was infested with loads of rats running around, but that was where John used to sleep.
“The one night I think he must have been bitten, because his head swelled up like the Elephant Man and his eyes were closing and we had to get him medical treatment pretty quickly.
“He was in a really bad place.”
An assessment which is confirmed by the man himself.
“It’s not a nice experience it all, being on the streets and addicted to drugs, actually it’s terrible,” says John, who is now 46.
“I see those people taking mamba and it was me once, I was just like them.
“It’s an addiction that just takes over you and it left me so vulnerable as well.
“People can just come and take stuff off you while you are under the influence and you have absolutely no idea what is going on.
“It feels like a different life, and when I do look back now, I actually think: ‘was that really me?'”
John’s initial descent into homelessness and addiction is a reminder that often, without the support networks in place from family and friends, just one episode of trauma can start a downward spiral from which it is difficult to escape.
At the age of 11, he suffered serious burns to his legs after petrol leaked from a motorbike, requiring substantial skin grafts and a nine-month stay in hospital.
Already struggling at school, he was then sent to a special school instead, and when later becoming an adult and landing a job and his own flat, the breakdown of relations both with his partner and his parents was the catalyst for minor tampering with drugs to become far more serious.
Over the years he has not only endured long spells of rough sleeping alongside the drug use, but also been detained in a psychiatric unit and spent time in prison after being involved in disorder.
But those who knew him from Wolverhampton, and from the Good Shepherd, could always see a warm and caring personality beyond his addiction, signs of a person who wanted to change, and so they never, ever gave up.
“I went over to Birmingham when we heard John was rough sleeping over there, and I remember finding him outside the church,” recalls Kate Penman, a key worker at the Good Shepherd who volunteered at the Night Shelter.
“I took him for a meal and remember he just broke down and sobbed his heart out, he was so frustrated and exhausted with what was happening to him.
“He was clearly unwell, and it was heartbreaking to leave him so depressed and vulnerable in Birmingham.”
Paul also went over to track John down in Birmingham – as seen by this picture from several years ago.
He managed to persuade him to return to Wolverhampton where supported accommodation was found. He then progressed to becoming a service user volunteer at the Good Shepherd.
For three days a week he works within the dining service, cleaning, distributing food and helping with collections and deliveries, and has become a trusted and valued member of the team.
“John was so vulnerable when he was on the mamba, he just didn’t know what was going on and before he knew it his phone would be gone, his coat, more of his possessions,” Paul explains.
“We managed to get him help and then get him volunteering with (Head Cook) Louise here at the Good Shepherd, and the change has been remarkable.
“It is just a different world now, John fits in perfectly, and I really couldn’t have envisaged all this happening a few years ago.
“We have had people come in here and see John and they can’t actually believe he is still alive given the state he was in with his addiction and how poorly he was.”
“I didn’t see him for a couple of years after seeing him in Birmingham and the next time was actually here at the Good Shepherd,” adds Kate.
“He had filled out, he was looking healthy, and that was the beginning of his journey with us.
“Everyone has a soft spot for John, he has such a warm heart, and I remember when I used to buy him coffees, as soon as he got himself sorted out, he said it was his turn to buy me a coffee.
“When we were in the Night Shelter, we found out when it was his birthday, and so made him a big cake and gave him a rucksack as a present.
“It was a small gesture but it meant the world to him, and it’s been wonderful to see how he has managed to turn things around.”
With the Good Shepherd operating a strengths-based approach to helping people during their journeys of recovery, John’s amiable personality and willingness to work hard have made him a perfect service-user volunteer who carries outan important role within the dining service.
He has also been a key player in the restarting of the fishing group for service users and Housing First clients, and, a keen Wolves fan, has been delighted to attend the club’s friendly with Luton and Carabao Cup tie with Blackpool this season.
Although it has been – and will continue to be – vital to have those support networks in place, and to have people ready to help him overcome the obstacles of which there will still be plenty ahead, his transformation owes far more to his own strength and desire to turn his life around.
“I think it’s willpower, that’s what’s important,” John reflects.
“You can go and have counselling and people to talk to and that is needed to help you onto the right track but then you need the willpower to do it yourself and move forward.
“This is the longest time now I have been out of trouble, and it’s so nice to do normal things like a day out in Birmingham, or going fishing or to the football.
“And I really enjoy the volunteering here.
“I do some cleaning and helping out and it keeps me occupied instead of just sitting in my room – it has given me a focus and I feel part of a team.
“For so long with the mamba I just didn’t have any motivation and didn’t feel I had anyone to turn to – it became such a sad life because all I could think about every day was that one thing.
“Looking back, the way things were going, I really could have been dead by now.
“But I really appreciate the help that people have given in getting me into the Good Shepherd, and giving me a focus and a feeling of independence.
“Life is short, and it’s a case now of trying to make the very most of it.”
There is still more that John wants to achieve, more to try and enjoy, but the steps he has taken already are extremely significant.
And steps which, in turn, are showing others that there is, indeed, another way.
“So many of our service users are struggling but they are inspired by John, because when they think they can’t do it they can look at him – and remember how he was – and know that it is possible,” adds Paul.
“And what’s wonderful is that he’s not stopping, he’s got to where he is but wants to keep going and be even better and that is awesome to see.
“He has become a really important part of what we do here at the Good Shepherd, and we are all incredibly proud of him.”