James has experienced various forms of homelessness for many years and has lived with both substance addiction and severe anxiety.
Asked when he believes his struggles began, he explains that he suffered years of abuse from his father as a child. “My Dad was abusive to my Mum and sister too, but with me, it was physical as well as emotional”.
With ambitions to become a chef, James left school at 16 and immediately found work as a kitchen porter. Life working in a busy kitchen was to prove stressful, and the atmosphere was frequently aggressive, mirroring his home life with his father. Following the lead of colleagues, he began to smoke cannabis to relax and sleep after long shifts. Later his drug use progressed to amphetamines. Drugs became a way to escape.
In his late 20s, James spent several years living and working in Denmark with his Danish partner. By now a fully qualified chef, he found work easily and saw this move as an opportunity to make a fresh start. The couple had a son together but the pressure of long and difficult shifts at work took a toll on their home-life and the relationship ended.
Returning to the UK, James moved in with his Mum and her new partner and his son. After some time, he found work as a cleaner and tried hard to rebuild his life, but tensions within this new family dynamic escalated until one day he had a serious argument with his stepbrother. He returned home one day after work to find his belongings in the garden and the locks changed.
Faced with no other choice, James took his tent and possessions and set up camp on a secluded piece of land just outside his Mum’s village.
Living outdoors presented obvious challenges and hardship but despite this, James managed to hold down his job for the next two years.
“The worst thing about sleeping rough was trying to keep clean. I’d wash my socks and underwear in the cleaning cupboard at work and managed to keep my living arrangements a secret from everyone.”
The relentless hardship of sleeping rough took an increasing toll on James’ mental health. “One day” he recalls, “I took all of my belongings and threw them in a skip. I just couldn’t keep carrying everything around with me. Getting rid of my guitar was such a painful experience.”
Soon after, James built himself a small wooden hut and began living in a secluded area of public land several miles outside of the city. At this stage still very mentally unwell, he would suffer bouts of anger at odds with his normally gentle demeanor, in which he would shout at the birds in the trees for being too noisy. He relates this with a half-smile and a shake of his head. “I got a reputation for being ‘The Wild Man’ in the woods” he says.
A major turning point in James’ life came when a friend introduced him to Wintercomfort and began to access help with his mental health and addiction.
“The counselling I’ve been able to have through Wintercomfort genuinely did save my life and I’ve finally been able to come to terms with who I am. Drugs no longer control me. I’m in control of my own future now.”
He has since fully insulated his hut and installed a wood burner inside. He feels at one with the nature that surrounds his tiny, makeshift home. He acknowledges that his life is unconventional but, as he tells me, this is where he needs to be for now.
James still accesses support from Wintercomfort, speaking to his counsellor each week and visiting Overstream House regularly to access welfare services and support from the project team.
In March, James took part in the Half Marathon in support of Wintercomfort, raising £250 in sponsorship. This was both a way to thank Wintercomfort for the support they’ve given him over recent years and also a way to show the world how far he’s come.
“I’m proud of what I’ve achieved. I’m able to accept what I’ve been through and to move forward. I’m at peace with who I am and I’m happy.”