A big house and BMW to homelessness - how Stevenage Haven saved Gary's life
PUBLISHED: 10:03 30 January 2020 | UPDATED: 10:18 30 January 2020
A 53-year-old Stevenage man has spoken about his experience of homelessness and how his life was saved by the Haven - the town's emergency night shelter.
Gary bounds up and down the corridors of Stevenage Haven, stopping and hugging everyone he passes. He knows their names and backstories like a roadmap.
"When I was a 17-year-old builder, I was doing this guy's house," Gary says. "He was an ex-army officer who had a relationship break-up. He was kicked out of the army, and had started drinking. He told me this story about how he ended up homeless.
"One morning I asked him, 'how did you let it get this bad?'. And he said something which stayed with me all my life. The problem is, he said - and this is the thing people never realise - 'you're only ever about two or three decisions away from ending up like me, and they may not be yours'."
Gary - who has asked to be known only by his first name - looks back on that encounter and sees unerring parallels with his own life over the past two years.
"I had it all. BMWs, a big house with my partner. I had my own building company. I was a success story," Gary says.
But in December 2017, a relationship breakdown and a brush with the law left Gary's life spiralling out of control - and quickly.
"I had 14 arrests in the space of four months, and I suffered a heart attack in police custody. I lost everything apart from the clothes on my back. I had been made street homeless."
Gary was put in touch with the borough council, which referred him onto Stevenage Haven at short notice.
He spent six weeks sleeping on an airbed alongside five other men - known as the cold-weather provision, which operates between November and March.
"I found myself living with people I used to step over. I used to have to kick these people off scaffolds. Now, I was one of them. Living with them and sleeping next to them," Gary says.
"I remember on my first day here, I was doing my laundry. And I was standing there in my pants - because all I had were literally the clothes on my back - and a bloke comes in and asks if I'm alright. There and then he offers me his tracksuit and his socks.
"I realised then that it's the people with nothing, who will give you everything. At the Haven, you get a load of people who's backgrounds are completely different - but it's just the most amazing place."
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After six weeks on a deflated airbed, Gary was given a permanent room - one of 40 single, en-suite bedrooms for Haven residents.
"I had two BMWs, a brand new van, I had a successful career - but for me to get a room here, was one of the happiest days of my life," Gary says, with total sincerity.
Gary lodged at the Haven for 18 months, leaving in July last year for a council property he managed to obtain through the shelter's nomination scheme.
He confesses that if he hadn't found the Haven, he would not be here to tell his story.
"I wouldn't have survived. The streets would have finished me. It is literally life or death with this place. The staff just have this ability to make things all right. They say, OK, here's what you're going to do. And you trust them, because they've seen you at the lowest possible point.
"The rules are strict. Any violence or drunkedness and you'll be barred. But people just live by the rules here - it's the weirdest thing."
Gary says that one of the core challenges for the Haven is raising awareness for people who need it.
"When you suddenly find yourself in crisis, you don't know any of this stuff - why would you?
"I used to bring my dog to the vet next door, and didn't know this place existed. This is the safety net you don't know exists."
Today, Gary's heart problems mean he is in and out of hospital most days. But he lives with freedom, and knows he is one of the lucky ones.
"There are 40 people in here - they're going to be alright. The Haven are literally saving lives in Stevenage. I watch it daily."
"But there are 300 to 400 people out on referrals. Where are they living? Well I can tell you where. They're living in flat staircases and car parks.
"If you're a dog and you're found dumped on the street, the RSPCA will take you somewhere warm. If you're a human, they roll their eyes and say, move along mate - now that can't be right."
And so it is that as Gary bounds up and down the corridors of the Haven, pausing to hug everyone he passes, it is clear just what the Haven means for him, and so many others.
It isn't just a shelter - it's home.