To mark Poverty and Homelessness Action Week Anabel Unity Sale hears what life on the streets was like for one former homeless man.
While homeless, Liam Allen used to steal cars so he could sleep in them. “I’d keep the engine running so I could keep warm,” he says. Allen, now aged 35, traces the roots of his homelessness back to when he started sniffing glue as a 12-year-old living in Dorset. This, he says, eventually lead to a Class A drug habit that would devastate his life.
He says: “From the very first time I took solvents I made a conscious decision to do drugs. I never wanted to do anything else or be anything else; I had no ambition because drugs seemed to solve everything.”
Allen grew up in Swanage with his parents and two older sisters. After being expelled, he was sent to a school for children with behavioural problems where he tried solvents and then moved on to cannabis, alcohol, ecstasy, temazepam and valium.
In 1995, at the age of 21, Allen was drug dealing and involved in car crime. He became a father just before going to prison for the first time for driving offences. It was there he was introduced to heroin and once out of prison his daily life became focussed on the drug. He had spilt up with his child’s mother and spent the following years in and out of prison, flitting between fellow users’ homes and girlfriends, who he always made sure did not use drugs (“so I didn’t have to share mine”) and had their own home (“because I couldn’t sort a flat out myself”) and a job (“so I could steal from her”).
He says: “As my heroin addiction progressed my lifestyle spiralled downwards. Any morals I had I slowly sold off to the highest bidder. I stole from friends and family first because they were the easiest targets.”
When not in prison, Allen was sleeping in cars. He also began using crack cocaine alongside heroin. “When I was homeless I felt like I was living like an animal, I’d hit rock bottom. I was living hand to mouth – I felt feral. I felt very isolated inside – it was a very lonely place to be,” he says.
In February 2003, a month before he was 30, he was released from prison. In the space of a few days his parents, who had always stood by him, his on-off girlfriend of three years and his daughter’s mother gave him a final warning to address his problems. “I looked at my dad and asked what was going to happen to me? He said, ‘you’re probably going to die’.”
Sitting in the caravan in his parents’ backgarden Allen used heroin for the final time. “I had a moment of clarity, I could see my life as my family and girlfriend did. I thought I either end it all or I fight and do whatever it takes to pull myself out of it.”
Having attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the past, even though he had been using, Allen decided to throw himself into attending meetings regularly. He distanced himself from friends who used and moved into a dry house, run by a charity. For 10 weeks he successfully attended a day programme run by the treatment charity Clouds while also going to NA. After three months he moved into supported accommodation. Since 2003 he has remained drug and alcohol free.
So positive has Allen’s recovery been that in October last year he was awarded the runner-up in the long-term achiever category of the Crisis Changing Lives Champions awards. He won the award from the homelessness charity because in August 2006 Crisis had given Allen £2,000 to train as a lorry driver as part of its Changing Lives programme to support homeless people with vocational goals.
He attended the awards ceremony in London with his teenage daughter happily by his side. “It was a lovely day and I’m proud of myself and what I’ve achieved. I’m a good father and am one of those normal bods now who smiles at the postman and puts his bins out.”
After completing his training Allen spent 13 months working as a lorry driver before deciding to use his personal experiences to help others. He began volunteering for CRI, a charity specialising in crime reduction, and now works for it full-time as an interventions officer on its drugs intervention programme.
Allen and his new partner live with his parents and are saving up to buy their own home and he is content in his job. “I love it; I go home after a shift with a smile on my face because maybe, just maybe, I’ve been able to reach someone.”