A few weeks ago I was asked by FTSE 100 Mentor Moe Nawaz to give a speech about my experiences with homelessness. Here's a transcript, which tells my story.
By: Chris Haycock, on 04 August 2016
In June 2016 I was invited along to a Ramadan event that focused on the issue of homelessness. I was asked by Moe Nawaz, a trusted mentor and strategic advisor to FTSE 100 companies, who is also heavily involved in the homeless charity sector. The event was held at the Diamond Suite in central Birmingham, and attended by many business people, community leaders and Labour MP Liam Byrne.
Having known Moe for several years, I said "yes, I'd be delighted". Although I was both nervous and excited about the prospect of delivering my story to such renowned leaders, I think I pulled off a rousing speech about my own experiences of being homeless, and how I turned around my fortunes, in a way that Dick Whittington would be pleased with.
Here it is:
Take a moment and think about this...
You're walking down New Street on a Saturday afternoon, doing a spot of shopping. As you're walking down the street, you pass hundreds of people. People of all ages, sexes, races, backgrounds and religions. Take a good, long look at them. This is our society. It's me. It's you. It's us.
None of these people HAVE a story. They're all LIVING their story. Their own personal story may have just begun, or they may be heading towards the end of their book.
As we move through the great book of life we end old chapters, and begin new ones. Just like a book that you've never read before, you don't know where the next chapter leads to. Your next chapter might be an exciting adventure, or it may be one filled with despair and poverty.
The book of MY life - so far - reads like the fable of Dick Whittington, who fled to London to seek his fortune.
From a very young age I knew I had a burning desire to shape my own destiny and create my own wealth, but it didn't come easy. I was a naive, unassuming and sometimes timid boy, but had big things planned for myself - if only I knew what they were.
At the tender age of eleven I was packed off to a military boarding school at the other end of the country, a couple of hundred miles away from my mum and sisters. My dad was serving in the Royal Navy, so he was rarely home, and would often be away for up to 18 months at a time on deployment.
I can still recall the complete devastation waving goodbye to them as the train left the station. Floods of tears would pour from my eyes. It felt like my heart was ripping apart each time I was sent away to spend another term away from my family, being marched to lessons, the dining hall and to the church each Sunday. It wasn't a place for an eleven-year-old who was suffering from extreme homesickness. I could only put up with it for a year until I begged to stay at home and go to school locally. My mum agreed, but I felt like I let them down.
After I was done with school I followed my family's footsteps by joining the Royal Navy. I spent five years travelling the world, seeing the sights, having fun thousands of miles away from home, meeting new people and served my country in the first Gulf War in 1991. It turned me into a man, taught me self-discipline and to stand on my own two feet.
But, it wasn't enough. I wanted to shape my future destiny in my own way, so I decided to leave the navy and set out towards London with a few belongings, just as Dick Whittington did, in search for gold.
Anyone that's been to London will tell you that London can be a lonely, unforgiving place for strangers. Despite the few odd jobs here and there, my luck was running out, and I eventually became homeless. I could no longer afford a house, flat, bedsit or hostel. I was pretty much penniless, and I didn't have anywhere I could call 'home'. I was broke.
Sometimes a friend would allow me to sleep on their sofa for a few night. These were the lucky nights. Other nights I would would walk the streets until the early morning, waiting for the first tube to start running so I could catch up on some sleep on the Circle Line. And on other nights I just found somewhere quiet to close my eyes for a while.
I never did admit I was homeless, until many years later. I was always too proud to admit it, and even kept it a secret from my family. I also refused to admit it because I wasn't a stereotypical homeless person. I wasn't in a hostel for the homeless, I wasn't claiming any benefits, and I didn't bed down in a sleeping bag in a doorway each night. I was too proud to ask for help.
By doing this, I was practically invisible to society. Part of society's 'hidden homeless'. Just keeping out of sight, and out of mind.
Luckily, I still had the desire to better myself. Dick Whittington had his cat, and it was his cat that turned HIS fortunes around. I didn't have a cat. I was down to my last pound in my pocket, and I needed to think "out of the box".
You may remember I had a few 'odd jobs'. One of these jobs was to drag a huge bag of merchandise from door to door, street to street selling whatever was in my bag. The bag sometimes contained toys or games. Sometimes it may have been household goods. Most of the time I was dragging round a bag of cheap rubbish, hoping to sell as much as I could.
I decided that the only way I could get myself back off the street was to go back to selling door to door, so I headed to a wholesalers, and begged them to allow me to buy a single item from their stock. The very first mobile phones were starting to be sold to the public, so I chose a toy mobile phone that would appeal to children. It was 67 pence.
I went out, took it door-to-door, and eventually sold it for three pounds, almost five times the original cost. What did I do with that three pounds? Well, first things first - I bought a bag of chips because I was hungry. I headed back to the wholesaler, and bought three more toy phones, which I then took back to the streets, and sold them for nine pounds.
No prizes for guessing what I did with this nine pounds - I went and bought more, and kept repeating this pattern every day, until I was able to check into a cheap backpacker's hostel each night.
And so, this routine continued, until I was making almost £900 a week - which was a lot of money 25 years ago. I was building my finances back up again, and with it my dignity, and I was beginning to feel like I was a part of society again.
Eventually, I'd made enough money to consider what the next chapter of my life was going to be. Along with running my door-to-door sales operation, I was now also the night manager of the backpacker's hostel, and it was that position that launched me into the hotel and catering industry, where I eventually became restaurant manager at a four-star hotel, and at 22, one of the youngest pub landlords in the country.
As part of these jobs, I had to get involved with producing leaflets, designing menus, and creating marketing strategies for attracting customers. I realised marketing was my dream job.
At that time the web was young, and I jumped on the chance of learning web design, web development, and internet marketing. This was my calling, and I pursued it as my career.
During the early years of my new career I once again found myself in trouble. Back then I was terrible at controlling my finances, and over the course of a few years I became homeless yet again - on three occasions, due to mismanaging my money - in Torquay, Banbury, and Liverpool.
But I never gave up. I continued to push ahead with my dreams. Eight years ago I launched my very first website, an events listing guide named BritEvents.com. The website became successful, despite designing, developing and marketing it whilst holding down a full time job. Then came another successful website, and another, and another.
I realised that this was my brand new chapter. A turning point in my life.
When I got to the stage where my websites were earning £5,000 a month I decided to give up my full time job and incorporate my business. My wife had just given birth to twin baby girls, and I was lucky enough to be able to spend the majority of my time helping her through the first 18 months whilst the money was coming in.
When our babies turned into toddlers I focused my attention on my business once again. I had a list of ideas as long as my arm by then, and my five websites turned into a portfolio of more than 30 within a few years - some were successful, others flopped.
By keeping my ambition going all along and by being persistent, I've been able to turn my fledgling business into a very profitable one that is on target to turn over a quarter of a million pounds in the next financial year. This was without any financial backing or assistance, apart from being a member of Moe Nawaz's amazing Mastermind of Entrepreneurs group, which helped me to take a look at myself, define who I was, and realise that I was a master of my own destiny.
I didn't realise until very recently that my personal story was very much like the story of Dick Whittington - a young man with big dreams that knew he could find success, despite the many setbacks in his way.
Today, I try to be as humble as I can. I always try to remember who I am, where I've been, and the obstacles I've faced in life. I am proof, if any is needed, that the stereotypical homeless person of being a lazy 'no-hoper' isn't true. More often than not these people want to find their way back into society and make their dreams and ambitions come true.
I now try to play a very small part in helping others, by 'paying it forward'. Homelessness has been a huge part of my life and I count myself lucky that I can now contribute something back to help others in similar circumstances.
Although I live over the other side of Staffordshire, I try to go along to feed homeless people in Birmingham alongside Help The Homeless team, taking along as much food and utensils I can. This team of truly amazing people are every bit heroes - going out in all types of weather EVERY week, giving up their time, energy and money to help feed Birmingham's homeless. Never mind your politicians, CEOs and actors - THESE are the people that should be recognised in the Queen's birthday honours list.
Can society as a whole do more? I want to give you a few statistics about the area I know a little bit about - the 'hidden homeless'. These are the people who exist in bed & breakfasts, squats, on the floors or sofas of friends, or completely out of sight and 'off the books'.
The charity for single homeless people, Crisis, commissioned a survey, and found that 62% of single homeless people were classed as 'hidden homeless', and that of the people they surveyed, 92% had experienced hidden homelessness.
According to the latest statistics published by the government, on a single day in 2015 the number of people counted that were sleeping rough in England was 3,569, up 30% from the previous year.
However, this figure does not include statistics on other forms of homelessness, and therefore itt doesn't show the bigger picture.
If you were to include all those who are classed as 'hidden homeless', guess how much this number rises to? 5,000? 8,000? 10,000? 15,000? More? The truth is, no-one really knows.
How do you count the number of people living in a squat? How do you count the number of people who are sleeping on friends sofas? How do you count the number of people who don't want to be counted because they are too proud to admit they don't have a home to go to? How do you count the number of people who may just have enough cash to get their head down in a £10-a-night hostel? You can't, so we don't know what the bigger picture looks like.
There are an unknown number of people that exist out-of-sight, day to day. Some days they sleep rough. Other days they beg a sofa. Some days they might be able to get access to an unlocked building. Many of these people spend a huge amount of the day figuring out where they will be sleeping that night. This is the hidden truth about homelessness - we just don't know how big the problem is, but I suspect it's huge.
Hidden homelessness is a huge problem. It's a lonely situation for those it affects. It can result in severe depression, and can make them feel extremely vulnerable. For them, it can feel like society has turned its back on them. They feel alone, helpless and scared.
Simply put, it can be devastating.
For some, it leads to a huge health problems. Others turn to crime. Some are exploited, and are exposed to serious danger. One thing they all have in common: they have little or no access to basic necessities, such as shelter, warmth, washing facilities and safety.
The big question, is "who will feed, support, and home these people?"
It has been said that the UK economy has now regained pre-recession output levels. But with deep cuts in welfare and a lack of affordable rented housing, the big question still remains.
Central government needs to dedicate more time and effort into gathering more information and data on the homeless, and adjust their financial support to help local authorities. The government aren't even able to give accurate population statistics, so how could they possibly know how much money to provide to helping the homeless?
And for local authorities, they should continue to reach out to support agencies to work more closely together, to ensure that information on homeless people's rights and entitlements, support packs, and advice, is given to everyone who needs it.
Central government, local authorities and support organisations need to come together, find common ground, agree tactics, and address the plight of our homeless.
And what about us? How can WE help?
Help The Homeless and Needy and other amazing charities are tackling hunger head-on. I see many people from all walks of life volunteering their time and giving their money to charities. Last year, I saw people normal people like you and I - working together to organise events to ensure that vulnerable people were not alone on Christmas Day.
There seems to be a growing number of the general public who are saying "enough is enough - I need to help". My heart feels lifted when I see people like them - and you - working together to help some of the most vulnerable people in Britain.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Having experienced homelessness himself, Chris now owns a successful digital publishing company, and runs a network of more than 30 websites, which attract almost 1 in 6 of the UK population each year.
Chris specialises in advanced digital marketing strategies, and has a range of services available to companies looking to boost their customers, conversion rates and sales.
To find out more about Chris' work, see his website, www.chrishaycock.co.uk.
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