“I’ve been drifting my whole life in different places. I was born and raised in Britain but where I actually fit in I’m still trying to find out. I was born in Huddersfield in the early seventies. My father was a doctor. He came from India in the sixties with my mother and older brother, and I was born three years later.

My father began to have mental health difficulties soon after. He was very worried about where his life was going. His relationship with my mother suffered and his health continued to get worse so he returned to India to try and recover. I went to care for him but I never felt like I could connect with people there. I tried to and so did my brother but we were always considered different. I was a foreigner and I couldn’t communicate. It then became complicated with residential permits and questions about what I would do as a British citizen so I felt like I had to return to England. It was like a calling. When I came back I didn’t know where I was going. My parents had agreed I should go but I was only eighteen and I didn’t have any contacts. We had no more family in the UK so I had nowhere to stay. I just had a plane ticket. I was totally isolated.

My mother was aware of my situation but she had never wanted to leave England in the first place. She didn’t want us to live in India. It was just because of my father’s illness that she had felt like she had to. She said she had run out of choices and she wanted me to have the freedom she didn’t.

I had enough money for some and food and shelter for few nights but after that I didn’t know what I would do. I actually asked people on the plane if they knew anyone who could help me and one family said they could put me up in Ilford for a few nights. They were very accommodating but I couldn’t stay for long. I went to the DWP who classified me as homeless and they referred me to the housing agency who gave me a list of landlords and agencies. A few of them rejected me but eventually I found one who would accept me. That was my first experience of homelessness. Having shelter for a few days but then not knowing where I was going to go after that. That was also my first experience of the box room, which was all I could afford. I’ve experienced them again and again over the years. There’s something about those rooms that never feels like a real shelter from homelessness.

It was from that time onwards that I started to get mentally unwell myself. Depression, isolation, sadness, pain. I didn’t know how to connect or react to people. I tried to. I wanted to find my roots again but England was not the same place that I had grown up in and I had changed too. I was crying for help but I didn’t know what to do.

I stayed in one room for several years but by the late 90’s my mental health had worsened. I started to believe the room I was living in was haunted in some way. I had no capacity to think for myself. I was afraid for my life and was sectioned for six months in a mental hospital. When I was released I was sent to a hostel for people with drink and drug problems in Camden. I didn’t know what I was doing there. The door to my room wouldn’t shut and I didn’t know if anyone was going to come into my room or not. I was so scared that I ran away with a black bin bag full of whatever I had.

I returned to Ilford because even though that place held a lot of bad memories for me I just wanted to feel safe somewhere. The housing officer tried to rehouse me but I was so full of shock and trauma that I was hospitalized again soon after. It then took them so long for them to find somewhere to house me that I decided to return to India with the hope of recuperating there instead. My father was still unwell, but my mother and brother were there. I spent six months in India getting better, but then my visa ran out and my mother had to intervene and get me an extension because I still wasn’t well enough to make the flight home. After three more months I felt ok to travel and returned to England once more. Again, with no home.

Initially I couldn’t be housed because they said I had left the country for too long, but when they saw I had a previous experience of homelessness and mental illness I was eventually allowed into supported housing. Mental health is a vulnerability, and I know from my own experience that it can make you more at risk of homelessness if you don’t get the right help. In so many ways I’m a son of the state. My whole adult life has been a relationship with the turbulent, sometimes helpful mental health system. I didn’t know any family outside of it, and I have seen the void in government understanding of how to engage with people who have mental health difficulties.

People with mental health problems are also portrayed as something you have to be afraid of because they’re different, like homeless people are, but they are some of the most vulnerable and empathetic people you’ll ever find. The word different can be a very dangerous word if you don’t understand that being different doesn’t have to divide us. As long as they’re seen in that way the perception of difference becomes a barrier to people finding a foothold, finding a job you can actually sustain, coming out of poverty, and actually believing in the system not letting you down, so that people can have trust and hope again.

My whole life journey has been about trying to find out who I am and where I belong. I think that’s what everyone is looking for. To feel worthwhile, to have dignity and self-respect, but these simple things that everyone aspires towards becomes like a dream. I was local in Ilford for over twenty years but I never felt like a local. Never felt like part of a community. I never understood why I couldn’t connect with other people, but maybe it was because I didn’t have a home or family where I had the opportunity to connect.

The world has become smaller in many ways but the walls within our hearts and souls have risen. We don’t understand why we separate ourselves from other people. It’s a kind of fear of being excluded, which actually makes us exclude others. Fear of the unknown is the greatest barrier to life. The only way we can address a barrier like homelessness is knowing the truth, and wanting to know it. Sharing experiences and stories helps us see how similar we are, then we can see there’s nothing to fear other than our own misperceptions.

After my father died a decade ago my brother came to England to join me. The absence of him from my life was one of the main causes of my mental health breakdown. Since childhood he was my only true friend. I don’t have anyone else who understands me like he does, but he has experienced his own health problems since coming here and I worry about him. We lived together for a while but then my health regressed again and I had to be taken into care. I still speak with him everyday but sometimes it feels like the blind leading the blind. I was ready to give everything to help my brother, but looking after my own life and supporting him at the same time felt overwhelming sometimes. His story is also important, and I hope he’ll find time to tell it as well. In many ways he’s my role model. I try to make him see he’s a very talented, special and unique individual but he just doesn’t believe in himself.  

For the time being I have a sense of hope in the present, but happiness is something I’ve never quite understood because I can’t always demonstrate it. Sometimes you have to find happiness by just knowing yourself, and being at ease with knowing yourself. That’s very hard for some people, to know what to be happy for. I still have mental health regressions, but where I live now is at least a safe environment. I’ve also come to Oxford to train as a fitness instructor so I can secure my physical health and hopefully help my brother too. Some people have believed in me and that means a lot, but I’ve never had a real job. Most of it has been voluntary work. I want to do something where I can be valued for what I can do for people. I don’t want to get washed up and fizzle out. I’ve always had that hope and belief that I could progress, that’s why I’m still alive.”

Neil, Oxford.

By sharing stories we can change attitudes and build a movement for permanent, positive change. Stand against homelessness and help us end it for good.