(excerpted with permission from Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission blog)
I couldn’t hear myself for the sound of the crowd, it was electrifying. I knew I had to focus but I couldn’t hear myself think. I knew what I was waiting for though. Once I heard that pistol that would be it. Just go…
I was a teenager, skipping school, told by the teachers I would never amount to anything — and standing at the start line of the 800m race, running for Scotland. When I crossed the finish line, I was exhausted, lying on the track. They had to pick me up and tell me I had won. I couldn’t take it in; my first race for Scotland and I won gold.
Running for Scotland in that race was the high point of my life. For once, I could believe I was good at something, no matter what other people told me.
I grew up in a great community. Everybody knew each other and looked out for each other. School was different. I didn’t like Primary School at all.
I used to go round to my Granny’s a lot — just round the corner from us. She was strong, she enjoyed life. She believed in me and I believed in my Gran. I think the lowest point of my life was losing my Granny. I didn’t find it easy to talk about missing her — I bottled it all up. I started to sneak away and drink more. My mum could smell it off my breath. I started dogging school more. I said I was going and then just wouldn’t turn up. I was only 14 and had lost the inspiration of my life.
Teachers thought I was a failure. Especially one who had it in for me and said I would never achieve anything. Running opened my eyes to being good at something. I was good at it, and I just went for it. It’s like life: even though you feel so low at certain times, everybody has dreams.
At the weekend, my pals and I were bored hanging about the streets at night, but there was nothing to do. We started drinking more, through boredom. As we drank more, I started to miss a few training sessions. In the end I stopped going altogether and that was it. I had loads of ambitions when I was growing up, but they just sort of wasted away.
When I hit 16, I just wanted out of school. I’d got put back a year at Primary 7 and I was gutted because my pals were going on to Secondary. All the way through, I always felt behind. Soon as I hit 16, I was out that door, and just into training schemes. My pals and I hung about on the streets at night, drinking and getting into trouble. There was always gang fighting. And in gang fighting there’s always repercussions. Sometime down the line, you might think it’s all over, but people don’t forget a face.
Peer pressure and boredom makes people join gangs. That and feeling excluded. Because you want to be like them, to be a part of something. In a gang, you feel a part of a group, safe, with your friends, feeling good. And then if somebody’s got a knife, you’ll start carrying a knife. If somebody’s drinking, you’ll want a drink. If somebody’s smoking hash, or more — that’s how you start.
So there we were, always getting pulled up by the police. And then you start getting into that spiral, angry, you’re getting lost. You’re always getting pulled up by the police, you want to just graffiti on the walls, spray stuff. It was warrant checks they stopped you for. You were always in and out, for stupid things — drinking on the streets, sometimes gang fighting, just a lot of stuff building up and a lot of court cases over the years.
Growing up was a downward spiral. We were all drinking, all still bored. I was on wee training schemes where you were earning £70 a week for learning how to do bricklaying, gardening. I thought it was amazing at the time: I’ve actually done something to earn it. At the end of the day I would finish and sneak into the pub. Then I got a job as a porter at a hotel. That was a good wage. The shifts were 11 or 15 hours though, and it was too knackering, it was affecting my health. I had to give it up in the end. […] So I came into this world of homelessness for the first time, and it was tough. I did not expect it to hit me the way it did. I got put in a hostel. I didn’t like it there. I got robbed. I was scared to go to sleep. You have to be tough in the hostels, because if you show weakness, they’ll try to bully you. […]
At last I got a flat. It was hard work to keep it up, but I loved my flat. I told myself I would never become homeless again. Four years later when the bedroom tax came in I was hit with extra money for a spare room I hadn’t wanted in the first place. I couldn’t afford to pay and got into debt and arrears. Things spiralled, and I couldn’t cope. It started to affect my mental health and I wasn’t able to ask anyone for help. I didn’t have the energy. It just dragged me down and down and then I was evicted. And here I am now, back in a hostel again. But I’m not going to let it beat me. It’s a slow process, but I’m just going to keep my head held high. I don’t want people feeling sorry for me.
I started going along to the Lodging House Mission, a Day Centre for people with homelessness needs. I went there for the cheap food, but I wanted something more so I started getting involved in the choir they ran. It was good — I grew to love singing. Scottish Opera ran a project with them, and I got my first lead role in their production, “Who Killed John King?” We ended up performing it at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. Who would ever have thought that I would be performing with the Scottish Opera at the Royal Opera House? I still can’t believe I done that. People dream of that sort of thing.
My heart is in singing and acting and I would love to be able to make a career out of them. That gave me the confidence to go to college. I did Sound Production, and the music side of stuff. I get to work on my own music. Learning how to add sound onto your voice and adding wee beats and stuff, it’s amazing the door it opens. I’ve made my mind up to be an actor. I’m doing a course in the Citizens Theatre now. On stage, you can get to be whatever you want.
But day to day life isn’t easy. I’m still running that race like when I was 15, but there are lots of hurdles in the way and people trying to pull you back. It’s a long road but I want to beat the odds. I feel trapped because I’m living in a hostel, and if I took a job and lost my Housing Benefit, I wouldn’t be able to pay the hostel. But they don’t listen to me at the Job Centre, I’m just another number. I really want to work, but I don’t know how, and it feels like they’re choking to sanction me. I try not to use food banks because they make me feel low, ashamed. It feels like another judgement. I know they’re there to help people, but that’s how they make me feel. Sometimes I have no option though.
At times I feel socially excluded out of everything. People look down on me because of the way I look and dress. I start to think that I’m a waste of space. I might look homeless, but there’s still good inside of me. Don’t insult my intelligence. I don’t want people to pity and patronise me when I walk down the street. I am still a human being. Every day is a battle. But I know there will be low days and try to keep going.
I’m much more than someone who is struggling with money, mental health and homelessness. I am a singer, an actor, a striver. My strength is being with people, building relationships, and supporting them. I know what it is like to be alone and isolated. I volunteer with Bridging the Gap. Every time I go in there it’s a positive, and I can be somebody. And now I am part of the Poverty Truth Commission too. I want to help change things. Actions are better than words. We all need to take a stand together, and I want to be a part of that change.
The most important thing I’ve learnt is to never give up on yourself. If you give up on yourself, what chance have you got?