“I was first homeless at the age of seven with my mother and continued to be homeless on-and-off for nearly 20 years before finding Emmaus.
I grew up in Galway, Ireland, with my parents, three sisters and one brother. Back then, separation was frowned upon and my mother became isolated from our extended family after my father left us to move to England. My mother dealt with the stigma at home, even though it was my father that made the choice to leave. He didn’t give us the option to go with him, and I’ve only heard stories about why he left. I’m still not sure to this day why he did.
After my father left, my family and I went on to become homeless multiple times in what was still a violent and dangerous Ireland. Without family support, my mother tried her best to keep us together, but almost straight away two of my sisters and my brother were all taken into foster care. My sister and I, the two youngest, stayed with my mother.
As a child sleeping rough, the scariest time I can recall was when we were in a women’s shelter in Limerick. I can remember hearing constant crying and screaming all night. My mother would tell us to keep our heads underneath our pillows, count to 10, and hide.
We spent the following years sleeping in cars, and in the boot of cars because my mother thought it would be safer, in the woods, on beaches, and in hostels when there was space. It was safer to stay in rural areas away from the main parts of town, and we would often sleep by canals or in quiet carparks. As I grew up, I got used to hiding and isolation became all that I knew.
I never had a stable upbringing; I didn’t finish school, we didn’t celebrate birthdays, and I can remember sleeping on the beach during one Christmas, and in the woods for another. As I got older, I stopped bothering with Christmas altogether as I was homeless during most of them or on my own.
At 15, I resorted to committing minor crimes to get by, and eventually social services intervened and I was put into temporary foster care with my aunty and her husband. I stayed there for nearly a year, during which time my mother moved to England to live with her sister. My aunty’s husband wasn’t a very nice man, and I wasn’t well behaved. A difficult relationship meant that I ended up leaving their house, and started to make my own way in life.
I was on my own and what started as minor crimes at 15 to get by, soon escalated into more serious, violent crimes to survive. I’m not a violent person, but my mind-set back then was to do what I needed to survive and unfortunately I could see no other option. At the age of 18, I became involved in political crime. I now know that I was young and stupid, but at the time I was blinded by anger at being homeless from a young age, not being given a fair chance at life, and the thought that life could have been better. It was around this time that I found a coping mechanism in the form of prescription drugs and alcohol.
I left Ireland in 2014 after life became too much. A lot of my friends were either going to prison or dying, and I didn’t want that life anymore. I travelled to Wales and made my way to Northampton, where my brother had moved to. 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 tried to get help at another homelessness charity, who sent me to Emmaus Coventry. I’m so grateful for finding Emmaus, as I don’t think I could have survived another week outside. I was wet, hungry, and I didn’t care if the food that I managed to find was rotten.
I stayed at Emmaus Coventry for two months, before moving to Emmaus Gloucestershire in 2017. It was a move up in the world at Emmaus compared to my life in Ireland. It was clean and the staff were helpful, experienced and willing to help – which is not something that I have seen much growing up. At Emmaus Gloucestershire, I kept to myself in the community, which was nothing to do with the other companions, but because being alone is the lifestyle that I am used to.
During my time at Emmaus Gloucestershire, I worked in the Chequers Road, Cheltenham and Stroud shops. I also had the chance to get involved with the weekly soup run and rucksack appeals to help distribute essential items to street homeless people. I think it is important to not forget where we all come from, and I don’t see the people we distributed items to as different from anyone else. I understood their situation – when you are homeless it is very hard to get out. I believe that you have to fight and push to get out of homelessness, and I know other Emmaus companions and I were very lucky to be at Emmaus. I also participated in The Big Sleep Out, organised by a local charity, Caring for Community and People, on World Homeless Day one year, to help raise awareness of the issues rough sleepers face. I think it is important to show that there are people who have been homeless that are willing to lead the way and to show that things can change.
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. 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 can’t force you to change, but it has provided me with the opportunity to work and to better myself. Without Emmaus, I don’t think I would be around right now and it has given me a lifeline to a better future.”
*Michael has since left Emmaus Gloucestershire and moved to a different community.