My name is Jamie and I was born in Blackburn in Lancashire. My dad was in the military and so we moved to Germany when I was young.
When I turned 20, I got called for National Service in Germany. My dad had already moved to London so I decided to join him instead.
However when I got here, it didn’t go so well. My dad had a new wife and they had a daughter together and all of us living together just didn’t work. Suddenly I found myself in a city I didn’t know with nowhere to live. I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t know how to get help.
It was a lonely experience not knowing anyone so I started squatting. It seemed like a better idea than sleeping on the streets. You have a roof over your head, four walls and a door, you feel safer.
You live with people you feel you can trust, you can sleep and know your stuff won’t be gone in the morning. People muck in when something is broken. You all work together to fix it.
However, if you want to get support from homelessness services, you have to be on the street. If you squat, you live behind closed doors and so they assume you have somewhere to go, so squatting can stop you from progressing in a way.
I have been asked how drug use has affected my mental health but it was my mental health that made me pick up drugs in the first place. Not the other way around. I became an addict because I was homeless. Drugs were a coping mechanism for my situation. But I didn’t want them to define the rest of my life.
Detox is difficult. It’s not just coming off drugs but you have to change your life. You have to stop going to places you used to go, hanging out with people you used to and keeping up the mental strength to say you don’t want it in your life.
One of these changes I needed to make was where I was living and so I moved away from squatting. I spent one horrible winter in a tent. I always remember I had to put tealights in jam jars to keep condensation off the tent walls. You have to learn so many tricks just to survive.
“I wanted a better life. But I’d been on my own for so long and felt like I had to do it all without a support network.“
Eventually, I managed to engage with services and I got into a hostel so I had somewhere secure to stay. During the day I would spend time at a day centre. This helped me to get my act together.
And then The Big Issue came into my life. Or back into my life, I should say. I sold The Big Issue when I very first became homeless but then I got back in touch a couple of years ago.
The Big Issue works for me on a day-to-day basis – it gives me motivation, confidence and money in my pocket. The opportunity to have additional support from the Foundation is great. They do an amazing job. It’s motivating knowing there is someone who wants to support me.
“It’s just good to know someone is on the end of the phone who can give advice and support. And someone who just listens.“
Alongside selling The Big Issue, I am also volunteering to help people who were in similar situations and I got my NVQ 2 in health and social care.
I love volunteering. I am appreciated and I am doing what I know will help. I like seeing people happy and thriving. If I think I can help someone it feels natural to do it. It is part of who I am. It makes them feel good, it makes me feel good and it makes the sun shine tomorrow.
I believe lived experience is fundamental to work with people so you can not only empathise but also understand what they are going through. It feels like the majority of people working with people experiencing homelessness are tied to their computer. They don’t have time for 1-2-1 and they are overworked and burned out.
However Kevin at The Big Issue Foundation didn’t seem this way. He is still pushing hard to make things better. I wasn’t using any more and he gave me support. He helps me with the stuff that I feel my key worker can’t help me with. He got me set up with a card reader so I could make more sales and helped with advice on money.
Kevin also helped me to get my passport by accessing the Hand Up Fund and helping me put together my application. I have photo ID for the first time in maybe 20 years. I don’t know who else could have helped with that. It opens doors – not only can I travel but I have something that says I exist and who I am.
I was engaged once and we had a kid but our relationship fell apart and I had to leave. My son is 17 and he lives in Ireland with his grandma. There was a gap when I was going through a bad time that we didn’t speak but we reconnected and now we keep in touch. Sadly his mum passed away recently after having a brain haemorrhage. Having a passport made sure I could go visit my son and make sure he was okay.
Back here in the UK, I have been stuck in my current accommodation for four years. It is great to have a room of my own but it is shared accommodation and the people I live with don’t always have the same goals to move forward as me. They are not people I always want to be around.
I want to find better accommodation but it seems there is always red tape that you can’t go around and you can’t cut through. Initially the housing services said I needed to sort out certain issues in my life which I have now addressed. I’ve applied twice and I continue to wait.
“All the hard work you put into getting it right. It’s very important to sustain our lives that we are given a chance. It’s important that people understand that.“
Sometimes it seems like the system is setting people up to fail. I don’t know if I have the solution, but I certainly know what doesn’t work as I’ve been there, I’ve lived it. Being stuck living with people who could easily bring me back to bad habits is not good.
Another example is, during the lockdowns, I broke a tooth and it got infected. I had some emergency treatment but I needed facial reconstruction surgery and I couldn’t get a follow-up appointment. I was in a lot of pain and the GP prescribed codeine. As an ex-addict, it is probably no surprise I got addicted to codeine. They gave me a repeat prescription and I was taking it for two years.
One day I missed taking it and it felt like I was going through similar withdrawal symptoms to heroin. I realised how bad it was and I decided to stop. I’ve been off it now for over two months. I don’t want it, I don’t need it and I’m happy to move forward without it.
Speaking to Kevin keeps me focussed. And recently something great happened.
I met my brother for the first time in 25 years. It was a coincidence how we reconnected. I set myself up an account on Facebook. I found someone else with the same surname as me and I messaged them. I said I don’t know if we are distant relatives but that I was looking for my family. And she replied and said she wasn’t a distant relative, she was my brother’s wife.
My brother and I started writing and then talking. Eventually, he told me to come to Germany and visit. Thanks to the Foundation supporting me to get a passport, this was possible.
I really enjoyed visiting with my family in Germany. It’s good energy. It feels homely and grown up. These are the things I want from my life.
My brother’s wife works on the farms and I just went with her to see what she does. I stayed, I watched and then I tried it for myself and I loved it. I’ve never done anything like this before but I really enjoy working with animals. And I had fun doing it. They have said there is a job for me if I ever want it.
My brother has now invited me to come and stay with him more permanently. As it seems I am unable to secure permanent housing here in the UK, Kevin has helped me to research obtaining leave to remain for Germany. It helps that I have an offer of secure housing and employment there.
Times are hard right now. Everything costs more and there is so much uncertainty. But it is good to not forget about other things in life. Like family. Connection. We still need to live our lives.
If I could ask for one thing, it would be that you give everyone a chance. Big Issue vendors are people that are trying really hard to be part of society. So many people just choose to ignore us without knowing who we are. If you don’t ask us questions, you don’t ever know. Just ask who we are and why we are selling The Big Issue. And then make up your mind if you want to support us or not. Buy a magazine. Donate to the Foundation. Or don’t. But don’t just make assumptions.
Give us a chance.
All the hard work you put into getting it right. It’s very important to sustain our lives that we are given a chance. It’s important that people understand that.
Your support can create more stories like Jamie’s – donate today and help change the lives of Big Issue vendors: https://donate.bigissue.com
Your local vendor is at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis this Winter. Prices of energy and food are rising rapidly. As is the cost of rent. All at their highest rate in 40 years. Vendors are amongst the most vulnerable people affected. Support our vendors to earn as much as they can and give them a fighting chance this Winter.