By Simon Oxton
William speaks in a gentle, reassuring voice that makes you want to listen.
A native of Guyana, 70-year-old William came to the UK from Paris in 1990 with plans to start his own book translation business. Living initially in Kent, he said he soon encountered ‘all kinds of problems’ with unscrupulous landlords and what he describes as unspoken ‘racialness’ among his neighbours.
‘I came to England with money, my own money that I’d saved in my country with plans to do this and plans to do that. But I was naive … I put money into the hands of landlords – big money, my own money – only to find that I couldn’t live in the place. People didn’t want me to live among them,’ he said.
According to William, his neighbours didn’t want him to live among them because he was black.
‘That is where the problems started. I can’t really talk about it because it was so horrible, tears might come to my eyes,’ he said.
William moved ‘from place to place’ for 10 years and considers this his ‘first’ period of ‘homelessness’ – having no fixed place he could call ‘home’.
He moved to London to work in 2000 but eventually couldn’t support himself with his earnings as a kitchen porter. Rough sleeping on the streets in Westminster, William saw the worst aspects of city life at night, such as random people ‘in posh cars’ waking him to offer him money for sex or people urinating on other rough sleepers.
‘My heart was always in my mouth. I said to myself, “If this is the way people exist sleeping on the streets, it’s bad for them with all those influences.” That’s why some of them have dogs to protect them,’ he said.
William can remember places where he used to go at night ‘looking for a quiet place, looking for cardboard put out for garbage’ to use as a bed. And if the council was ‘closing down the place, spraying water’ he would just ‘move away from that place,’ he said.
While getting daily support from London charity The Passage, he read about HOPE worldwide UK in a booklet aimed at people experiencing homelessness and was provided with housing in 2003.
However, due to numerous circumstances, he then bounced around several housing options for over a decade, which changed in 2022 when he self-referred to HOPE worldwide UK and was housed in Walthamstow.
‘It was a wonderful feeling when I saw the place. It was the best help I ever got from a charity,’ he said. ‘When I got to that place I said, “Thank you Lord. I can make a new start here now.” And that was the beginning of turning my life around. They were so nice to me to give me all these things. I would not have got the money,’ William said.
‘I’m at the stage now where, thanks to HOPE worldwide UK, I’ve got that stability that I needed from all those little worries.’
William says that he enjoyed good neighbours for the ‘first time in his life’ since his experience with homelessness. Bonus: He was also able to write and self-publish his book Enid Blyton: The Untold Story.
‘When [the hostel] discovered I was writing a book, they gave me a place downstairs, a nice room with books where you could go and relax,’ he said. ‘Nobody was ever using the room. They put a desk there and I used to sit there every day and do what I had to do. That place helped me to find myself – to become calm and relaxed and to move on.’
Although ‘retired’, William is a qualified public speaker and plans to train future kitchen porters in how to be excellent in their work, something he knows all too well.
‘I was interested in work, and I knew what the employers wanted. I always used to give more than they expected. And so, whenever I was at work, they were always glad to see me. They were always glad I was around because they knew it would go smoothly.
And that is the way I am,’ he said.
As he trains kitchen porters, William wants to teach them the value of being indispensable. And here’s a nugget of wisdom that he is sure to pass on to his trainees, gained from 70 years of life: ‘Seek advice. And always try to have a good friend.’
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