A man who was first homeless at the age of seven is sharing his story this Christmas to celebrate having a place to call home at local homelessness charity Emmaus Gloucestershire.
Ireland-born Michael Horan, 29, grew up in Galway with his parents, three sisters and one brother: “My father left us when I was six, and back then separation was frowned upon. My mother became isolated from our extended family, and we eventually became homeless.”
As a child sleeping rough, Michael was in and out of night shelters: “I can remember always hearing constant crying and screaming all night. My mother would tell us to keep our heads underneath our pillows, count to 10, and hide.”
Michael went on to spend his childhood and teenage years sleeping in cars, and sometimes in the boot of cars because his mother thought it was safer, in the woods, on beaches, and in hostels when there was space.
“As I grew up, I got used to hiding, and isolation became all that I knew. I didn’t have a stable upbringing; I didn’t finish school, we didn’t celebrate birthdays, and I remember sleeping on the beach during one Christmas, and in the woods for another. As I got older, I stopped bothering with birthdays and Christmas as I was homeless or on my own during most of them.”
At 15, Michael resorted to committing minor crimes to get by and used prescription drugs and alcohol to cope with life. Social services intervened and he was put into temporary care with his aunty: “I stayed with my aunty and her husband for nearly a year, during which time my mother moved to England. My aunty’s husband wasn’t a very nice man, and I was blinded by anger at being homeless from a young age and not being given a fair chance at life. A difficult relationship meant that I ended up leaving their house, and started to make my own way in life.”
Michael’s involvement with crime and drug use escalated, and he continued to be street homeless or sofa-surfing. During this time, the realities of being on the street had started to take its toll: “The physical effects on the body when sleeping rough are tremendous, especially in winter. My body would freeze up and times when I had a sleeping bag it would become damp and start to smell. If I wasn’t wearing clothes that completely covered my skin, the bag would stick. I had to pull the bag off, taking skin off too. Emotionally, I had to shut myself off because over the years, I saw and knew people that had died on the street.
In 2014, aged 27, he left Ireland as a lot of his friends were either going to prison or dying: “Life had become too much. I travelled to Wales and made my way to Northampton, where my brother had moved to, but living with him didn’t go to plan and I became street homeless again. It was during another winter and I remember not having any food for four days straight. I was wet, hungry, and I didn’t care if the food that I managed to find was rotten. I didn’t have a sleeping bag either and all I could do was hope that I’d survive the night.”
Michael was referred to Emmaus and moved to the Gloucester community in 2017: “I feel like it’s a move up in the world at Emmaus compared to my life in Ireland and I like it. I work in shop filling and support in the Chequers Road, Cheltenham and Stroud charity shops which means that I’m helping to support the charity that has given me a home.”
After settling into the Emmaus community, Michael realised he could support others in the position he once was: “I’ve had the chance to get involved with the weekly soup kitchen that Emmaus Gloucestershire runs and rucksack appeals where we distribute essential items to rough sleepers. I think it is important not to forget where we all come from and I want to keep fighting so people still on the street have a voice. I hope to show that there are people who have been homeless that are willing to lead the way and to show that things can change. The reality of winters on the streets is that you’re lucky to survive even just one night – I got lucky, but so many haven’t and some of them won’t last this winter.
“Looking back as an adult, I see that homelessness from that young an age affected my whole life. As a child, although we didn’t have any clothes and barely had any food, it sometimes felt like an adventure. I see now that it wasn’t. Thanks to Emmaus, I have a calm and stable life, something which I have not had in years. Most recently, I completed a business course with the help of Emmaus and hope to get my reading and writing up to scratch. I feel as though I could have a future, which going back two or three years I wouldn’t have seen as a possibility.”
Emmaus Gloucestershire provides a home for as long as needed and meaningful work for up to 31 people who have experienced homelessness and social exclusion, offering them an alternative route out of homelessness within a supportive environment. Those living at the community gain valuable skills through working in the charity’s five charity shops in Cheltenham, Stroud, Nailsworth, and Gloucester. All funds generated from each shop helps to support the Emmaus Gloucestershire community.
To find out more about the work of Emmaus Gloucestershire or to get involved as a volunteer, please visit www.emmaus.org.uk/Gloucestershire.