I call myself a citizen of the world

In celebration of Black History Month, we have been sharing the diverse stories of our staff and clients. Shaaban, Deputy Manager of Islington Mental Health Service, explains how his own experiences of homelessness have helped shape his approach to supporting people with complex needs such as those recovering from drug and alcohol use or mental and physical health problems. Shaaban focuses on individual strengths and inspires people to believe that their recovery really is possible.

Many people think about people who are homeless in terms of what their needs are, what is wrong with them. But I believe that we should be thinking about what they are good at. Everyone has a story, and everyone has achieved something in their lives.

I call myself a citizen of the world, a global citizen. My dad was a Tanzanian diplomat so I’ve travelled around a bit; I started primary school in Beijing and lived in the Sudan, so I speak a bit of Arabic. I was also in the Tanzanian army for about two and a half years. But my own story also involves personal experience of sleeping rough on the streets of London.

I used to sleep on the Strand or near Victoria station

For me, one of the worst things about sleeping rough was being physically abused. In the 90s, I used to sleep on the Strand or near Victoria station in London. It got busy around there, especially at night. Sometimes people got drunk and violent, and would attack and even urinate on people sleeping rough. I was also singled out by some other rough sleepers because of my race.

After three months on the streets, an outreach worker gave me details of a St Mungo’s hostel in Clapham. I went and they checked me in the same day. I slept in a bed that night.

That was the beginning of my journey to recovery. I was at the St Mungo’s hostel for about six months, and then moved on to another hostel in Soho for nine months. After that I went through rehab twice, the first time in 2000, and the second time in 2005.

I started an apprenticeship

During my second and final stay in rehab, the manager there suggested that I train as a support worker, so I started an apprenticeship.

I wanted to turn my own painful experiences into something positive, so after finishing my training, I decided to specialise in mental health and substance use. I have a degree and qualifications in mental health, psychology and counselling.

I’ve worked for St Mungo’s for almost a decade now. It’s an inspiring organisation to work for, because we don’t stop at giving people a roof over their heads. We address the underlying reasons why people become homeless in the first place.

I know from first-hand experience that recovery is possible

My role is certainly challenging, but the thing that puts a smile on my face is getting to know my clients, and seeing the transition that they make.

People are always asking me about my hat, because I never take it off! I tell them, when people get married, they wear a wedding ring to represent the commitment that they’ve made. My hat represents a moment of great change in my life, a moment when I committed to my own recovery, and to helping others to recover.

A lot of my clients experienced feelings of failure, shame and guilt when they were sleeping rough. People often turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate against the pain of these emotions. I know from first-hand experience that recovery is possible, with the right help. I’m glad that telling my story helps people to believe that.