After losing his job and going through a relationship breakdown, Paul Agnew, 50, found himself living on the streets. In October 2021, he was offered a place in a St Mungo’s hostel, where he found the support he needed to make a fresh start. Today, Paul is preparing to move into his own flat. Here, he tells us about his hopes for the future.
Homelessness can happen to anyone. All it takes is for one thing to go wrong, then it’s game over and all of your bridges have fallen down. That’s what happened to me. In the middle of the pandemic, I was sleeping in a tent on the Brighton seafront.
I grew up in Manchester, in a close-knit family with four brothers and two sisters. But like many teenagers, I fell in with the wrong crowd. I got involved with drugs and stealing cars and things went downhill from there.
I was sent to a Borstal when I was 15, then five years later, I served 20 months in prison for counterfeiting bank notes. I’m not proud of it, and when I was released I said to myself; ‘no more jail.’ I moved in with my mum, Yvonne, and found work as a scaffolder.
I completely turned my back on crime, but as the years went on, things went a bit pear-shaped. First, my mum passed away and she was always the rock of the family.
I moved in with my long-term partner but our relationship fell apart. Although I was working full-time, it was a cash-in-hand job. I’d take my daily wages and go out at night, where I started using drugs again. My partner struggled with dependency too, and there were loads of arguments. We weren’t good for each other and I was faced with a choice – either to stay and let things get worse, or to walk away.
I stayed with my brother Matthew for a few weeks but around the same time, I also lost my job. My employer decided to pack up his business and start again in Australia. He invited me to go with him, but I couldn’t because of my criminal record.
So, in August last year, I found myself without a job or a home. My brother was moving house and I didn’t want to keep asking my family to find me a bed. It wasn’t fair on them.
It all became too much. I didn’t want to be in Manchester anymore and I had to get away. One day, I packed a small bag, ditched my bank cards and my mobile phone, and jumped on the first train I could find heading south. That’s how I ended up in Brighton.
It was frightening but I’m a big lad and I can look after myself. Almost right away, I found someone else who was living on the streets and talked to him about the support available. Everyone thinks that people who end up on the streets are down-and-outs, but we all look after each other.
A volunteer group also found me pretty quickly, and they gave me a tent and a sleeping bag to stay dry. I set up camp in front of a hotel on the seafront and every morning, local street outreach workers came out to see us. They directed me to a day centre where I could take a shower, find food and wash my clothes.
We were in the middle of a pandemic, but I just had to get on with things. I lived in a tent for six weeks but I still got up every morning and walked to the day centre so I could stay clean. I spoke with a case worker there about my situation and that’s how I found St Mungo’s.
In October last year, I was offered a room at their No Second Night Out hub in the city. I finally had a roof over my head and a safe space to recover. I stopped using drugs and they helped me to find my feet again. I was able to reconnect with my family, apply for the right benefits and find longer-term housing options.
In many ways, I’ve found a kind of family here. I’ve gone from being down in the dumps to having something in life to look forward to again. I spend my free time walking along the seafront listening to soul music and I’m also a client representative for St Mungo’s.
Some people come into this service with nothing at all. Sometimes they’re having a bad day and they might take it out on others, including the staff. My job is to be the peacemaker, to resolve disputes and to help people settle in.
Helping people to look after themselves and their health is also important to me. As a client representative, I’ve been encouraging people to have their COVID-19 vaccine. I know some people don’t believe in it, but there’s a serious risk to others when you’re interacting and mixing with others every day.
I came to Brighton to get away from it all, but with St Mungo’s support, I’m moving back to Manchester. I’ll have my own flat and I want to get back to work.
My advice is to always keep smiling. If you keep smiling, then someone will come along and want to help. This experience has changed my outlook on life and I can’t wait to have my own front door again. There’s a tattoo on my arm of a ship’s anchor with the words; ‘Refuse to sink’. It’s the motto I apply to my life; I was down in the dumps but I didn’t give up. Now I’m back and stronger than ever.