I have performed Nessun Dorma in Manchester Cathedral five times and have recently performed at the Royal Academy of Music. If I told you nothing else, you would probably create an image in your head of a well presented man with a slick hairstyle wearing a very expensive jacket. If I told you that I used to be homeless, would that shatter your created image of me? Am I, in your mind’s eye, now scruffy haired wearing dirty clothes and looking up from your ankles asking for money as you walk by, desperately trying to avoid eye contact?
My name is Danny and I was born in Liverpool in the summer of 1955. At 17 I joined the army as a physical training instructor and served my country all over the world. After 12 years of service, I was involved in an explosion that permanently damaged my wrists and was subsequently discharged. This was a tough blow for me because I wanted to serve in the same capacity as my brother who had completed 24 years of service. He was my idol and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. When I was discharged from the army, I found it extremely difficult to settle back into civilian life; I was married with two small children and was trying to work despite my disability. I attempted to work in construction, but my injuries made it difficult to complete the work, so I often fell behind my colleagues. As time progressed, I struggled to even hold a pen. It was at this point that my mood became quite low and I turned to the bottle just to cope. In spite of all this, I was able to set up my own business and even had 12 people working for me, but the stress of running a company began to weigh on me. My wife was ill, my children were young, my business was stressful and soon everything crumbled on top of me.
I was found at the side of the motorway in my slippers not knowing who I was or where I was going. I was placed in a hospital just outside of Birmingham for 9 weeks. I stopped drinking for a while, but my depression remained and I was having suicidal thoughts. I left the hospital with the feeling that I’d burnt all of my bridges and I had nowhere to go, so I began to travel the country instead of returning to my family. I later tried to reconcile with my ex-wife, but we were unable to make things work. Too much had changed. I’m sometimes asked whether I was travelling or simply homeless. Back then, I was of a mind that I had the freedom to go wherever I wanted to go. But in reality, I had nowhere to live and slept on the streets, so yes, I was homeless. I didn’t feel sorry for myself, nor did I want any help. This is called “entrenched homelessness,” which is a term used to describe a state of psychological homelessness.
I onced lived in a hide in the woods for about 7 months. A local farmer offered me payment for doing odd jobs, but I turned down the money because I knew I would just be back on the drink, so I worked for food instead. The farmer really looked after me, but I eventually decided it was time to move on – I had itchy feet.
After a few stops, I ended up back in Birmingham where I met a guy who was an accountant before he became homeless. We had a chat on a bench, both lying down with our heads together in the middle. He had a wife, a house and a full life before he lost everything and ended up on the streets. He told me something that has stuck with me ever since: “I hate waking up in the morning because even the statues are looking down on you.” One morning I woke up at the feet of the Queen Victoria statue in Manchester. She was looking down on me just like he had said. I felt really inspired in that moment and decided to start writing poetry.
I stayed in Manchester for years, mostly around Piccadilly near the bus station. I accessed a lot of services for the homeless in Manchester. A doorman near where I stayed looked after me and helped if I ever had any grief. I was once lying on Portland Street in my sleeping bag, fast asleep, when two guys came over and beat me up. The police were unable to help me because they couldn’t get in touch with me. I lost my front teeth and have a scar to remind me of it.
The most prominent things I’ve learnt about being on the streets are:
> You feel constantly ignored, invisible and lonely
> Mental health issues on the streets are huge
> I never personally took drugs, but I did drink. It’s easy to fall into that way of life when attempting to escape reality.
I was using the centres to have breakfast and a drink before leaving straight away, but after a while I started staying for the activities. I was rubbish at art, but they encouraged me, which built up my self esteem. The staff working at the centres are amazing. Eventually, I was asked to be in a musical and performed in front of 300 people. After the show, I got my sleeping bag out and slept on the streets with the biggest smile on my face. I wasn’t bothered that I was on the streets, I’d really enjoyed myself. That was when something changed.
Over a cup of tea, I spoke with a support worker from arthur+martha, a local charitable organisation, about poems and how they are tunes made of words. Before then you couldn’t get a word out of me, but now you can’t shut me up! He really helped me change my life and I started to progress. I started volunteering at the Booth Centre whilst living on the streets. I was offered shared accommodation, which I took for a while. It was hard in the accommodation. We had our own rooms, but people were constantly knocking on the door wanting things, picking up drugs, etc. – it was quieter on the streets, so I eventually went back. A friend of mine let me sleep on his couch sometimes. He was a big drinker and wasn’t very well mentally. One night he committed suicide and I was the one who found him and had to tell his fiancé. This was really upsetting for me and I again struggled to hold things together.
The Booth Centre helped me so much from there and I got involved with the Walking with the Wounded Organisation. I told them about waking up in panic, sweating and constantly feeling on edge. They put me in touch with the Veterans Association which sent me to a councillor, where I was diagnosed with PTSD and explained what it was – twenty years I’d been dealing with this, without even knowing. I finally got the help I needed and it was then I wrote the poem PTSD. Statistics show that in 2017 more than 60,000 armed forces veterans experienced homelessness and struggled with mental health problems. It is estimated that one in five homeless people in the UK have PTSD.*
On December 17th, 2017, I viewed a one bedroom bungalow in Manchester and on Christmas Eve, they contacted me at the centre to tell me I could have it. It was a mess but I didn’t care. I could change that. I moved into that place in the new year and I’m still there now.
Through human kindness and hard work, I have turned my life around. I still suffer from depression and have negative thoughts, but through gaining help, I have the tools I need to get through it. I’m a trained mentor now and even help other people become mentors. I work for Invisible Manchester, a social enterprise that trains people who have experienced homelessness to become walking tour guides of the city. I’m an ambassador and I pride myself on connecting homeless people to the services they need.
I’ve reconnected with my children who are parents themselves now. I’ve missed so many important parts of their lives but I’m doing everything I can for my grandchildren. We have a saying, “We’re not to look backwards, only forwards.” Being around young people means I’m learning more and more about technology and computers, which is changing my life. I’m really struggling with my wrists now, but I still manage to type on a computer.
When someone is struggling like I have, I want them to know that they are not alone. No matter what, someone is there for you. You can find them. If you haven’t struggled like I have, don’t ever be under the illusion that you’re invincible. Mental health problems, addiction and homelessness can happen to anyone. I’ve served our country – I thought I was invincible too.
If I feel down, I find myself a spot and write poetry. It helped me then and it continues to help me now. It’s important when times are hard that you have a creative output. Putting my feelings of fear, stress and worry onto paper keeps me sane and in control.
“What if you have itchy feet?” I hear you ask. If I have itchy feet, I walk home
Thank you to Danny for his interview and the copy of his book “Off the Cobbles” – our favourite poem is “Beer or Cake” and we hope to see the live and interactive version very soon!
Photos: Emma Ledwith / www.emmaledwith.co.uk