Derek shares his story

In 10 weeks, Derek’s life fell apart, and for six years he slept rough. But one day a cheerful phone call made him wonder if he could start again. Here, Derek shares his story with Cornerstone’s Phil Hardy, in the hope of encouraging others…

During his half a century and a little bit more, Derek Smith has not only experienced long spells of homelessness but also life’s greatest heights and its deepest lows. Relationships – happy and sad – good jobs, and friends, came and went. Rejected by family aged 16, his story began sleeping rough on London’s streets but today he has his own peaceful home with a North East homelessness charity doing things just a little differently.

“Within two and a half months, the best 10 years of my life were over”, Derek recalls grimly. He is sitting in a sunny corner of Cornerstone’s furniture and outbuilding factory facility where he volunteers as a joiner most days.

The homelessness charity operates a social enterprise building wooden furniture and out housing within which its stakeholders from the charity’s supported housing projects and community engagement hubs join children not attending school to learn vocational skills with a view to full-time employment. The charity has employed almost 30 people with lived experience since 2014 and seen many more find work elsewhere after training.

Derek is in his work clothes. I have had to persuade him to take a break from staining a shed, a job he does because, as he says: ‘it helps out and is what is need most by the team’. As he is quick to point out though, he can easily build a shed, make a bench, or a chair himself.

I ask Derek to describe his journey to living and volunteering with Cornerstone today.

“My unborn child and my partner, Donna, – my one true love – both died within a short of time of each other, Derek reveals painfully. “Donna and I got pregnant and we lost the baby suddenly. Then a few weeks later she was gone too. Soon after that, my two brothers killed themselves and I lost my young niece to cancer, Derek tells me. “Two other friends from my neighbourhood died suddenly. It was all too much. For a good while, I gave up, I just gave up…”

Seeing Derek fight still raw emotions of these memories is hard to witness. I ask him if he is sure he wants to be so open. He is adamant that he wants his story to be told, it is important to him that people understand how homelessness can happen but also can be overcome. The native Londoner is reliving painful memories of events that broke his life in two. For six years, he has lived with them: nightmares that break his sleep, sudden, agonising flashes that stab at his enthusiasm and hard-won happiness. But it’s better than it was. Despite the pain, these tragic recollections bring, Derek wants to share his story in the hope others are inspired to follow his path and begin rebuilding their lives as he has done with so much courage and determination.

Derek, all at Cornerstone will happily tell you, is a friendly, witty, and cheerful man with a great sense of humour and the most heart-warming smile. To meet him is not to know his story from his manner or his face. He was brought up by a family described as ‘well to do’ in London. That he was being treated differently was a realisation that came gradually to him and finding he was not his father’s son seemed to Derek to explain how he felt ‘unloved’ and ‘rejected’ as a child.

“I’m Afro-Caribbean from London in a well-to-do family. My Mum and dad split up and I was living with my step-dad. As I was getting older I realised I was treated differently from my two brothers but couldn’t really understand why. Then I realised he wasn’t my real dad. My two brothers were his. It wasn’t working out and I didn’t feel any love from him. My brothers went on a holiday abroad with him every year and I’ve never been on a plane in my life, even still. It didn’t bother me at first but later I felt sad and not loved and went in on myself at a certain age.”

School life was important for Derek as a place where he felt ‘valued’ and gave him a chance to excel in education and sports but, he says, trouble at home was ever-present undermining it all.

“I began to look forward to just getting to school because I was valued there. I wanted to become a draughtsman and ran for the local Harriers. I was on the point of being accepted to run 800m and 1500m for England aged 15 but everything got squashed because of my family life. A lot of things did happen in between but it just got worse and worse. There was a lot of sadness for me growing up in that environment because I thought what was going on behind closed doors happened in everyone’s family but it wasn’t. It was completely different.”

It was on Derek’s 53rd birthday when he finally ended six years of rough sleeping and sofa surfing. He had not known how to become verified with his local authority as homeless which kept him there far longer than needed. Once verified and engaged with the support of the housing teams he needed, Derek found himself with the pick of emergency-supported housing providers in the area. A friend who let him sofa surf was the first to confirm with Durham County Council’s Housing Solutions team that he was homeless.

“I was completely homeless, I was living on the streets of Peterlee (in County Durham) and sometimes sofa surfing. I didn’t realise at the time that to be deemed homeless you needed to be verified by the various authorities out there so I would be seen by them on the street but then they would go one place then another and I wouldn’t be there again because I wasn’t in one place all of the time. But what I realised, in the end, was that all you needed was for a friend to say that you stopped at their house and that deemed you homeless.

“Then from that point on I got involved with Housing Solutions (Durham County Council’s homelessness team) and they gave me all these places that I could go to who are looking out for homeless people.”

He said that he was first drawn to Cornerstone by the ‘calming voice’ of the charity’s support worker, Linda Cummings.

“I was on my way to Chester-le-Street to Changing Lives because they were the first ones who called me up and there were a few others (homelessness hostels). I was about five minutes away from Chester-le-Street then another phone call comes through and it was Linda and she just said in a calming voice ‘Come to Cornerstone’ and I said to the taxi driver I’m not going there (Changing Lives) I’m going to Cornerstone. We couldn’t find it at first and I rang her, she said she would be waiting outside. We found it and there she was and here I am now.”
Asked what the difference was with Linda’s voice Derek smiles his smile, now fondly thought of as characteristic of him within the charity.

“It was calming. Everywhere else was come here, do this, do that and the other but Linda was someone who just said come here, have a look, talk with me and see if it’s for you.”

The problems Derek experienced growing up came to a head and he first found himself settling into his first night rough on the streets of London at just 16 years of age. A frightening situation for any teenager but he’d always felt alone, lacking of a supportive family circle and struggling, he says.

“I got kicked out of home at 16 and ended up living on the streets. That’s when it first started. Centrepoint Nightshelter (staff} found me and put me in a hostel. That’s where my journey around London and its hostels and night shelters began and {continued} into my early 20s. I’ve never had the love of a family circle around me, I feel like I’ve always had to do it on my own but it’s never been a struggle. it’s just maybe I’d tell myself it just can be done so don’t give up. No one is looking out for you but don’t turn to a life of crime. I’ve been around it but it never really caught me up.

Now no stranger to the ‘dark side’ of London’s homelessness landscape, Derek found himself alone in a dangerous new world filled with temptations.

“I was meeting so many people and I’ve learned to make a quick judgment because living on the streets contains the dark side and the underworld where there’s crime and I got into drugs. I would never go out and steal and never went to jail or was arrested for anything related to drugs. I’ve just sampled it and moved on It was an eyeopener and if it was there to consume, I did it but away on my own so I could see how it affected me first.”

But Derek did eventually get into work, firstly as a picture framer in London and then training as a joiner after moving to the North East of England. He enjoyed a 10-year relationship there he describes as the best years of his life in an ‘immaculate’ home with “everything you’d ever need.” But after his tragic 10 weeks in 2015, Derek’s life deteriorated rapidly as he struggled to cope with overwhelming grief. He lost everything, returning to homelessness until last year.

“My partner and I lost a baby but then shortly after, she ended up in hospital. I got a call from them saying she was about to die. I got a taxi to the hospital which was about 20 miles away and within an hour she died in my arms. I don’t know if she knew I was there but I think she did because she had hold of my hand and she wouldn’t let go of my hand. But the time that she let go was when she took her last breath. Her mouth opened and her eyes opened almost scaring the life out of me… that was her dying.

But even as Derek was struggling to come to terms with this loss, life was ready to deal another cruel blow and it proved too much to bear.

“After my partner died I found out that both of the brothers I grew up with had killed themselves. I lost a niece to cancer and a couple of other friends died within two and a half months. That’s when I lost the plot, well, not lost the plot but went in on myself. I was in a bad place. I had a lot of savings, gave a few grand away to family, and the rest I just blew on drugs. I just gave up – I just totally gave up. I was just in such a bad place and I never thought I’d get out of that.

Linda Cummings has been a support worker with Cornerstone for more than a year but has decades of experience in helping others. She said as soon as she met Derek she knew they’d get on.

“I was waiting outside for Derek when he arrived. I just remember this big smile and I just knew we were going to get on really well. Then we went through the assessment process with him and moved him in that same day. Derek has been a joy to work with we have had our ups and downs, it hasn’t been a smooth ride. After he was assessed for his needs and settled in the housing I knew I had to get him registered with a GP and get his medication sorted out we also had to look at his benefits which were in place but needed a change of address. We had done a lot of form filling and I had to ask a lot of questions and it’s the same for all the guys who come. I let them just get settled in after all the formal stuff and give them my work phone number and say ‘give me a call if you need me but I’ll let you relax.’ Afterward, I see what further needs there are and the support we need to put in place.”

There was also a lengthy process to get Derek identification for a bank account, a process that ended with him gaining a provisional driving licence but also one Derek and Linda describe as ‘a nightmare’. His first day at Cornerstone, Derek will remember forever as one of the best birthday presents he ever received.

When asked what his memories of his needs that day were, Derek answers almost immediately not needing time to think.

“It was my health. It was my blood pressure, and feeling a bit depressed. I wasn’t really sure about {the state of) my health but I wasn’t on my medication, in particular, my anti-depressants, and wasn’t sure if this was contributing to my poor mental health and my head being all over the place and that. I wasn’t in a good place at the time. All I had was the bag I turned up with and the clothes I turned up with. I was in a bit of debt too because of lending money and borrowing money. I thought I’d sort it out at some point so it wasn’t worrying me. I knew that the things I had before I’d always get back so I just had my coat, my little bag, my smile, and that was it.”

Nine months from that day, Linda and all of the staff at Cornerstone have been impressed by the tremendous improvements in personal growth and stoic attitude from Derek. He agrees with the assessment and feels he has found the right place to thrive.

“I’ve got a bit of self-worth knowing there’s a chance here to get back into joinery after not knowing if I’d ever been able to do it again. It was like a blessing that they have the joinery workshop which is something that I love doing and it was an easy progression to get in and just get stuck in. I was a bit shaky at the beginning. I was making false promises and not coming down as regularly but that’s sorted now. It’s been a process. It’s been good that the staff had the patience to give me space to find my feet and ease in at my own pace.”

Being around caring people, particularly his support worker, Linda, has helped him with that growth Derek shares.

“Coming to Willington, I didn’t know anyone else but Linda. No one else. I got settled into the shared house and I was the first person to be in there at High St and was only on my own for a couple of weeks or so. But from then to now, moving into my own flat, fully furnished. I don’t know, it’s making me feel a bit emotional right now but… I had nothing but I think I must have done well because I’m getting a bit of praise from the staff for the volunteer work I’m doing here. The people I’ve met from being here from the charity shop (at the front of High Street) … Shirley (The Venerable Shirley T Griffiths) meeting the staff at the workshop who have been so open-hearted and honest and wanting to help me… I’m going to start crying and I don’t want to start crying…

“I’m volunteering full-time and I’m a joiner but I’m mainly helping out with the staining but I can make a shed, make a bench, make a chair but I’m really fitting in where they need a person to be and that’s where I’m at. I have the skills level 3 in Bench joinery so I know I am qualified.”

Asked if he could have seen a time he would have achieved similar results Derek can’t see how he could have done it alone.

“No, because of my age I’m just kinda stubborn really so I can make friends easily but then I would have been just drifting from friend to friend and whatever the situation is but I would somehow have done it but I couldn’t have done it without the intervention of an organisation like Cornerstone because it’s pointed me in the right direction and that was all I needed. It’s given me somewhere I could come to work on myself and be better.”

Joining Cornerstone is an experience he would recommend to anyone in his position but warns it is not easy and needs patience.

“I’ve got the insight now and it’s not easy and I wasn’t expecting things to get done overnight. I’m old enough to know it doesn’t work that way. I’ve met a few people with who I’ve shared a house with and they can see what I’ve been getting and putting away to the betterment of myself and my place and it takes time.

“It’s been eight months to get my flat but I’ve paid for all that I’ve got and had it stashed in my wardrobe. I made my room {in the shared house} the way I wanted my flat to be in the future and it did inspire a lot of people to improve theirs. But 100 per cent, if someone is recommended to come here and they get the chance to talk to me and see what I’ve had from what I didn’t have. This is the time it takes. It’s a commitment and being honest with yourself and knowing that it’s not going to happen overnight. But you can, with a bit of hard work, get to a place where you gain satisfaction in your heart and in your head and in your life where you can step over and move on.

“I’ve been in hostels before and they’ve helped me but then being young, I drifted out and been in situations where the help was there but being young and an idiot you just want to go on living the life of a happy-go-lucky. I thought it was good at the time but I was just drifting within the hostel circuit. So, when I came to Cornerstone, I thought: ‘I’ve been there and I know how it’s done. I won’t let this go for once. I’ve got to go all in.”

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