It might feel like there is no way back when people find themselves sleeping on the streets.
Yet one man is living proof that becoming homeless does not have to be forever as he believes that with the right support, anyone can go on to achieve their full potential.
Andrew Mcleay knows first-hand what it is like to be homeless, having been left without a roof over his head when he first moved to London.
However, after a string of lost jobs and battling severe debt, he managed to overcome his demons to work on the frontline for a homeless charity and now runs their soup kitchen.
Speaking exclusively to Uspire, Andrew revealed that having been raised in an abusive home, he was desperate to escape the clutches of his alcoholic father and decided to come to England.
Andrew said: “When I moved, within a week I was told the couch I was sleeping on was about to be occupied. I didn’t have a UK phone and didn’t know anyone and didn’t even have a bank account.
“I left thinking maybe I’d find a hotel or something, but I walked for hours and hours and found nothing. When it started to get really, really cold, I knew I needed to get somewhere.
“I saw a skip and wondered if it would be a good shelter, so I moved my suitcase behind it and pulled everything out of it and covered myself completely in the shirts and jeans that were in it, in the hopes it would keep me warm.
“It snowed that night, and I got maybe 20 minutes sleep. It was so cold I thought I was honestly going to die of hypothermia behind a skip in Ealing.”
Fortunately, Andrew made it through to morning and managed to find a cash machine where he withdrew money from his Australian account for a night in a YMCA hostel only to discover it was in some ways worse than the skip as he was kept awake by constant banging on the door and people swearing so he got no sleep that night either.
Reflecting on his experiences, Andrew is keen to stress that homelessness is not only physically challenging but also mental exhausting too.
He explained: “Mental health is such a huge part of homelessness, in fact, it’s the first thing to deteriorate. Panic sets in. You start thinking, ‘What if I don’t find somewhere to sleep? What if I can’t afford it? What if… what if I deserve this?’ You start thinking maybe your suffering is your fault and maybe you’re pretty worthless.
“From there, it’s easy to see why so many homeless people are portrayed in such negative ways. If you genuinely believe you are worthless, urinating in the street isn’t going to be a problem because you already feel so judged and horrible, nothing anyone says to you is going to make you feel any worse. It is like some sort of black hole that sucks you in and when you’re in it, you feel like no one can see you and your truly, unequivocally alone.”
Andrew added: “It’s sort of like you feel like you have cement in your feet, they are always heavy and tar in your lungs. You feel like something obstructs your breathing, but you know you must be breathing okay because you can still take breaths.
“You start to ache all over, and the pain just gets heavier and heavier, like sandbags constantly being added to your shoulders but you can’t stop.
“Then the pain goes numb and you stop caring about any of it – the consequences, your past, your future, how you look or smell. You even stop caring about food for a while until it becomes really important, it’s like you are dead and just wandering the streets that are full of people, yet you are separated from them and alone all the time.”
Andrew was one of the lucky ones in that he managed to find a small room to rent, and while it left him incredibly poor he was at least not on the streets anymore.
Now, Andrew helps others who are struggling and encourages them to confide in someone to ease the burden of their worries and also hopefully find longer-term solutions.
He said: “The thing I always say to people at the soup kitchen is, life is really difficult, but our problems don’t have to define us. There is usually a way back, but it might take effort.
“I tell people to open up to someone, the more people the better; whether a homelessness professional or a friend or family member and let them know what is going on.
“Even if they can’t directly help, they may know someone, and they’ll be thinking of you, so you’ll at least know someone out there is thinking of you and cares about you.
“Just talk to someone, anyone, because life-changing opportunities start with conversation. Eventually, you’ll find the right person and a problem shared is a problem halved.”
Andrew also believes that tapping into individual ways to express yourself can help people feel motivated – and having been blessed with a talent to paint, he uses his own gift to help him.
He said: “Portrait painting for me has been a ‘way back’ to the community. It’s helped me to reconnect with civilisation and make comments without feeling judged.
“When you’ve been on the streets, you constantly feel like people are talking about you and judging you, painting gives you a voice, but essentially a private one no one can take away.
“As I started to get better, I started to take commissions and grow more confident, eventually gaining a few fans. It gave me a huge boost and made me realise maybe I wasn’t as terrible as I thought I was, as I had conditioned myself to believe I was worthless.”
Andrew now takes photos of the homeless people he works with and then paints them, giving them the finished artwork as a gift on a special day for them such as their birthday.
He concluded: “It has brought a lot of smiles on their faces to be able to do something so personal and gained me some great lasting friendships.
“I plan to amass all the portraits I have painted (well over 100 now) and put them in an exhibition to talk about awareness and make their faces prominent – somewhat ironically as they are often ignored and invisible. I have a space lined-up in Hampstead, I just need a great time to do it.”
For more info, or to get involved, click here: Ealing Soup Kitchen.