A man who spent nearly four years on the street is sharing his story to celebrate having a place to call home this Christmas at Emmaus Greenwich.

South London native, Tony Long, woke up one morning in 2014 and left his family, two children and his home in Essex:

“Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was having a mental breakdown. A combination of events led me to leave everything; I was in the process of splitting up with my wife; my grandad, who had a huge influence on me, passed away; and I was working non-stop running four busy kitchens as a chef. It all became too much.”

Unwell, Tony left his home in just a t-shirt and jeans on a cold January morning and made his way to London:

“I will always remember that first night sleeping rough. I was on the steps of Victoria station and it was snowy. I found newspapers in a nearby recycling bin and wrapped myself in them to keep warm.”

Tony went on to spend over three years on the street, travelling around coastal areas but always returning to London:

“I began to sell The Big Issue and would save all the money to get the cheapest bus ticket to coastal towns for a few weeks before returning to London to get a new sleeping bag and clothes. The thought of contacting my family scared me because I thought they would be angry – I felt stuck in the situation that I found myself in.”

In London, Tony’s regular sleeping spots became a sheltered walkway by the OXO Tower and near Victoria Station:

“Some people would stop for a chat and bring me coffee, but generally being homeless in London made me feel like I was invisible or that I must be an addict or alcoholic.”

Over the years, Tony was faced with extreme weather conditions:

“It was horrible in the sun, but the worst was in the rain and snow. I will never moan about the cold again. When you’re homeless, the rain and snow ruins you and I would do anything not to get my clothes or feet wet as I knew that would mean trouble. Thinking back, it was amazing what my brain and body handled.”

After roughly two years, Tony discovered that he was reported as a missing person:

“I was in Wales at the time when a policeman asked for my details. I came up as a missing person and he told me to contact my children. That’s when it really hit home for me. I didn’t contact them straight away but must have gone to the phone about 50 times that week to do it. There wasn’t much of a conversation when I finally did, as it was mostly me crying. They understood that I had been unwell, but they thought I had died and that is something that I will always wish I could take back.”

Taking steps to rebuild his life, Tony moved to Emmaus Greenwich, a South East London charity which supports formerly homeless people by giving them a home and the opportunity to work in its social enterprise:

“I’m so thankful to be at Emmaus. The structure it provides is exactly what I need to eventually live independently again. I run the kitchen in the community cooking all the meals for the other people being supported too, and I love it. I get to see my children regularly, and the support I’ve received from family and friends has made me feel very lucky. Before my breakdown, I was living life at a hundred miles an hour, and somehow I have managed to come through the other end with a positive outlook on life.”

This Christmas, Tony will be celebrating with others at Emmaus Greenwich, whereas other years have been different:

“I’ve spent Christmas on the street alone near Victoria station, not wanting anything to do with it. I can remember falling asleep outside on one New Year’s Eve being so tired that I managed to sleep through the firework display. This Christmas though, I’ll be at Emmaus and seeing my children which I’m really looking forward to.”

Emmaus Greenwich offers an alternative route out of homelessness within a supportive environment for 33 men and women who have experienced homelessness and social exclusion. Those supported at the community live together and help to manage the charity’s three shops in Lee, Plumstead and Poplar which gives them the opportunity to learn new skills and in turn raises funds to run the charity.

To find out more about Emmaus Greenwich, or to support the charity, please visit www.emmaus.org.uk/greenwich.