Ex-junkies move into support roles

15th June 2007 at 01:00

A City Lit course has seen two former addicts turn to helping the homeless

YOU WALK past people like Arnold Priddie and Alan Duggan every day. At least, if you live in London or any other city or large town in Britain.

After a while you stop seeing them. The homeless have become part of the street furniture. How they got to be homeless, and how they might break out of the cycle that keeps them that way, is not your problem. You have your own life to lead, after all.

That was pretty much how I saw it until I met Arnold and Alan and talked to them about a remarkable educational project that is helping them, and others like them, back into mainstream life.

Alan's story is a familiar one. Now 32, he started on drugs at 13. At first, he just did what many other kids on his run-down north-west London estate were doing: alcohol and cannabis. At 14, he dropped out of school and found the rave scene, rapidly progressing on to ecstasy and acid. A couple of years later he discovered crack cocaine. To fund the habit, he started committing crimes and - whenever he got caught - doing time in youth detention centres.

By the time he was 20, Alan's drug of choice had become heroin. Except that, as an addict, he no longer had a choice. Prison be-came an occupational hazard, and he was in and out of it for the next 10 years.

Finally, in 2002, he was sent down for three years and nine months for aggravated burglary.

For Arnold, it wasn't in prison but hospital that he hit rock bottom. But, like Alan, the root of his problem was addiction. "There I was," he tells me, "a homeless junkie, living in a car park in Bristol. That wasn't in my life plan."

Like Alan, Arnold, now in his late thirties, found drugs early. His periods of homelessness started early too. Before his stint in the car park, Arnold slept on friends' floors, his mother's floor, and in the stairwell of his mother's block of flats. "As long as I had my drugs, I was ok," he says.

But ultimately he wasn't ok. While dossing in the car park, he developed a serious heart complaint, and given his addiction to crack and smack, the doctors weren't confident they could save him if it happened a second time.

This was the turning point. Discharged from prison and hospital respectively, Alan and Arnold's lives continued along parallel lines. Both entered rehab. Both followed, step by painful step, the road towards a hostel for recovering addicts.

For both, too, there was a desire to "put something back": to help other homeless addicts get on that same road to recovery. And that is what has brought them both to the City Lit, central London's adult learning centre, and their award-winning Move programme, which is designed to help homeless people develop the skills and confidence they need to move into employment.

With their six-month course now coming to an end, both Alan and Arnold acknowledge the extent to which their studies have helped them move on. "It's been very good for my self-esteem and my self-worth," says Alan. "I know that I can do a lot of stuff now that I could never have done before."

Like others among the dozen or so participants on the course, which receives funding from the European Social Fund, Alan hopes to find employment as a support worker. He has already chaired Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and is upbeat about the future.

"My life has got a lot better," he says. "I know what it's like to be hungry and cold and feeling the world is caving in on you. But now I'm making amends, putting something back into society."

Arnold admits he has found the course tough-going. Partly he puts this down to his fear of failure. When his literacy teacher put him in for an exam at a higher level than the rest of the class, he confides, he wondered if it wasn't "a conspiracy to make me look stupid". Passing the exam, though, which he subsequently did, "gave me a big boost".

Once the course ends, Arnold is planning to continue his voluntary work with other homeless people. "That's a great leap forward for me," he says with a grin. "In the past I'd never be the sort of person who'd do anything for nothing."

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