For Matthew Waterhouse, the transformation over the last 18 months has been nothing short of remarkable.
“Speechless,” is his reply when asked what his family have made of his progress.
One of those on the Housing First programme where a support worker – in this case Raminder Dhir from the Good Shepherd – provides one-to-one guidance to help people thrive in their own accommodation, Matt’s life has come full circle since the start of the pandemic.
At that stage, back in March of last year, he was a long-term heroin and crack cocaine addict, was begging on the streets of the city centre, suffering severe mental health problems and describes his mere existence as a ‘horror show’.
Now, sitting with a calm confidence and a refreshed and hugely optimistic outlook as he tells his story on the Good Shepherd podcast, life is so very, very different.
Matt has his own accommodation, he is in recovery, off the drugs, and he has his health.
He also has hope. Determination. And a new drive and focus to give something back.
To know just how remarkable a transformation he has gone through, it is worth heading back to those early days of the pandemic, when he was amongst a sizeable number of rough sleepers who were brought in from the streets and offered accommodation in a local hotel as part of the government’s ‘Everyone In’ programme.
“I was a long-term heroin and crack cocaine user for over 20 years and on the streets for long periods of that time,” he explains.
“I had been in prison and came out clean but then a relationship broke down and I went back to the drugs.
“It was a horror show, and when Covid came I was in the town centre begging for money because of my habit.
“Having to ask people for change, it’s difficult to explain to someone how that feels, and then I would have to turn to crime and stealing, even though I tried not to.
“I was in a really bad place with my mental health, using all kinds of stuff, but then someone told me there were people helping the homeless at the Redwings Hotel.
“I went down there to have a look and staff told me ‘yes, we can help you, we can give you a room and help you with all your support needs and connect you with the people you need to be connected with’.
“At the start, to be honest, I thought it was too good to be true.
“My drug use in the hotel was still the same but I was in accommodation where I knew I was safe at night and that was my main issue at the time.
“There was no pressure put on me, I was honest with everyone who I was speaking to, and we started working together to see how things went.”
The Good Shepherd were among several charities and agencies who sent staff to the Redwings as part of the response funded by ‘Everyone In’ and co-ordinated by the City of Wolverhampton Council.
Project workers with Housing First are assigned to work with individuals who are extremely vulnerable but have the potential capability to live in their own accommodation with a tailored package of support.
The idea is that, with that support, people are able to remain and thrive in their own accommodation rather than just being left to fend for themselves with the risks of falling into financial difficulties or returning to rough sleeping.
Matt was assigned to Ram, who admits it was a very different Matt that he first met to the person he is now.
“Some days I was scared to knock his door at Redwings, wondering what state he would be in or even if he might be dead,” he recalls.
“But as we started working together and giving him the support things really started to improve.
“Towards the end of the time at Redwings I would knock the door and he would be running to open it, shouting my name!”
“Ram used to find me in the hotel room nearly overdosing,” Matt confirms.
“We can laugh about it now, but it was serious.
“I would be collapsing and he was just like ‘we need to get you some help mate’, and there was never any judgement, he was always trying to help.
“When you are a drug addict you wake up every day and the only thing on your mind is drugs.
“So to have somebody who cares about you, who says, ‘we are here to support you if you want the support’ – that’s just amazing.
“I took the support and started working with Ram with a lot of one-to-one sessions and going over everything we wanted to achieve.
“They are good at setting goals, making you challenge yourself, but it is always at your own speed, making sure you don’t need to run before you can walk.
“Sometimes I just needed a sympathetic ear, to be able to let a bit of steam off with my mental health and I admit I certainly wasn’t an angel in the hotel.
“But they gave me another chance, maybe they could see something in me, and they built on that, and Ram has been so on the ball with everything it is unreal.”
They say every journey begins with a single step and with the help of a referral to substance misuse charity Recovery Near You, Matt started making progress with his addiction.
At the same time every journey also has its obstacles, and at the start of this year Matt became very ill with pneumonia and ended up in hospital.
“I nearly died but managed to come through it and it was like I had been touched by God,” he recalls.
“I never believed in God before but I recovered and went to stay with my brother after leaving hospital and the Housing First team continued to support me.
“I haven’t touched drugs since coming out of hospital in January and then they sorted me a flat, on the same street as my brother – you really couldn’t write it!
“I really can’t say thank you enough and it just shows that anything is possible.
“It has been emotional and I am not going to say that it has been easy.
“But Ram and the Housing First team gave me the support and that makes such a difference.
“The support workers give you their all and there are no strings – they are always there for you and will work at your speed.
“Before I have got so far in getting my life back on track but one little trigger, something with my mental health or making me feel low, has knocked me back.
“Then I would be back on the drugs and a few hours later I would be cussing myself again and asking myself why I had done it.
“It isn’t easy in those situations to be able to think logically, but with that support I have been able to do it and the benefits afterwards are brilliant.
“If you saw me a few months ago you really wouldn’t think I was the person now so I would say to anyone – never be afraid to ask for help.
“And you have to do it because you want to improve your life, not for anyone else, because I think when you are just going it for someone else that is when the wheels fall off.”
Ram has a team of service users he works with as part of the Housing First programme, which is overseen at the Good Shepherd by Surinder Kapur, and seeing people like Matt develop and move forward is certainly something that offers enormous job satisfaction.
“The transformation in Matthew’s journey has been marvellous,” Ram adds.
“From the minute we first started helping him in the hotel to where he is now, in his own flat, is amazing.”
So what’s next on Matt’s journey? What are his plans now having been clean for several months and found a new motivation and determination to move forward?
And what have his family made of his transformation?
“I want to start volunteering,” he declares.
“I’m hoping to go and do some volunteering at SUIT (Service User Involvement Team) and have just signed up to do a computer course which will help me with that.
“I have always wanted to volunteer, and I think it will work because I have the experiences which will hopefully help other people.
“It’s all little steps but I really want to give something back and it has all been really positive so far.
“I am not a horrible person, it is just when you get into the situations that I did with addiction you just don’t care about anything.
“Now with the help of Housing First I care about things again, I can spend money on myself again and it’s not drugs.
“My family? They are speechless to be honest – my Dad has Parkinson’s but he is able to come and visit me.
“My nieces and nephews are used to me being around for a bit and then being in prison but now I have been around for a while and can be there with a birthday card and things like that – I think they are lost for words as well!
“I couldn’t have turned things around any better really, and it feels like now I have got something to live for, every single day.”
Pictures: Stuart Manley Photography