I first met Francis some years ago , when I worked on a project with the homeless with alcoholic and drug problems.
I remembered him previously as a rich successful minor local celebrity, so I was surprised to learn that he too had once been homeless and was a recovering alcoholic. He was also working as a volunteer on the project.
From “having it all” Francis now is very happy to live very modestly. He seems to have no interest in acquiring “stuff” chasing dreams or ambitions and indeed owns very little.
He says that when you have been well off, with the big house and the fancy car, you realise that these things do not bring happiness and what he really values is the love of his children.
He gave his consent for me to publish this conversation
ME..How did you get to be homeless from a rich successful person?
FRANCIS “Looking back I was probably suffering from depressive illness for some considerable time. I was finding it difficult to function. The business was failing, because I was not turning up for work and I was drinking heavily, “to cope” My behaviour was not good, to say the least, my marriage was falling apart, but of course I did not recognise that I was ill.
My wife decided to divorce me, probably for her own survival and that of the children. I didn’t want this, but I was in a state where I didn’t know what do, so did nothing and eventually she got a divorce. Of course the judge gave her everything and I was evicted from the house. I was literally thrown out with an empty suitcase. It was very acrimonious.
Where you homeless then?
No, first I had a bit of money, so I ran away to Europe and lived there for a while, but my mother became ill so I returned to England and stayed in her old peoples flat. She eventually went into a home and I had to move out. I did get a flat but it was flooded when the tenant upstairs left his bath taps on.
I did not know my way around the benefits system, so at first I slept on friends couches, but eventually they get fed up with you so you move on. Sleeping anywhere you can
It is difficult to describe how helpless I felt. All my life I had been self employed and worked hard, now it seemed I was incapable I had lost everything and didn’t know how to get things back.
So I went to the Salvation army hostel. The first night it was wonderful to sleep in clean sheets on a proper bed. But I knew I didn’t belong there.
What do you mean?
“I didn’t belong. It was regimented. We had to leave in the morning and couldn’t go back till evening. The religion they forced on you. There were people with mental health issues, it was like a mental ward but open.
I knew I didn’t belong, so I left after a few weeks. Then it all becomes a bit blurry. I didn’t know which way to turn. or more important HOW to turn. I was hopeless and helpless. I realise now I was severely depressed but I didn’t know it. Sometimes I slept outside but sometimes people put me up or showed me where to sleep and where to go. These were not the sort of people who live in big houses. They were other tramps, villains, crazy people who live on the streets. Everybody else had given up on me.”
Did they ask for anything in return?
“No, ( laughs) I had nothing, they had nothing. You kind of slip into the cultural mentality of where you are and the people you are with. I was stuck there, these people became my friends and my support.
Being homeless is very boring, very lonely. I was very miserable all the time. I slept a lot, because there was nothing else to do. You have no money to do anything, so you walk around and sleep a lot to conserve energy. Drink, when you can get it , helps to numb the reality.”
Describe a typical day.
“I would just walk around at night , because it was too cold. I would look in the widows of the terraced houses at the lights and it always looked warm . I remember thinking to myself, “if I only had one of these houses, I would never go out again“ I was trying to pass the time till 5am when the market started and could get a cup of Bovril to warm my hands.
Then I would find somewhere to rest and sleep most of the day.
I was ashamed. I was trying to hide from other people what I had become , but at the same time trying to hang on to a sense of staying alive for the sake of my children, who long ago had stopped trying to understand me but I knew they would be hurt if I died. but it was hard”
How long did this go on ?
“Two or three years. I can’t remember a lot of it, it is still very blurry.”
So what changed?
“I had an Epiphany moment. One night in February about 3am. I sat on a bench, freezing cold and suddenly the realisation came to me that everything bad that had ever happened to me was because of drink….. this had been glaringly obvious to everybody else but me!
I have never had a drink of alcohol since.
It is difficult to describe this moment without it sounding like some kind of spiritual thing , but that is what it seemed like to me, something came from outside me and suddenly I know what to do as though I suddenly woken up.
So the next day I went to see a man who had been my neighbour, who was a doctor and he admitted he didn’t know how to help me with the alcoholism, but he knew a man who did….and the rest is history.
I then went to see an old friend who was a landlord , I asked for help and he gave me some money to buy new clothes and clean myself up and arranged the forms for housing benefit so I could rent a bedsit.
Another old friend who was a market trader, soon saw I was getting better and gave me a job. These people you don’t forget, they were there when you were at your worst. I think they were just relieved to see me getting better.”
So what about today?
Actually I try to paint over that period in my head , it is painful to remember. I often find myself thinking “this is better than a bench!” and I am very grateful. I have the love of my children and my ex wife now speaks to me. I try to give something back with voluntary work.
Do you ever give to homeless people, how do you feel about them?
I feel great sympathy towards them, but I rarely give to them on the treests. I was never a beggar. Some are not destitute, some are professional beggars. I once met a man from the streets of Bolton, who recognised me outside Covent Garden in London, who said “put your money away, I am a beggar man now here and have a flat down the road ” I saw him a few months later in Bolton visiting some relatives with bags full of shopping.
I will occasionally make a judgement about somebody and give a homeless person money, but I never give to beggars.
I have mixed feelings about groups who go around giving out food and blankets. I am not sure if they are just enabling the homeless. I only changed because I got to a point where I could not stand it any more and I got to my rock bottom. On the other hand not everybody gets there. So what do you do?
Love from Bolton