Gary's Story: Gay and Homeless in the 90s
When Gary was 18, things began to get difficult at home. His parents weren’t getting on and there was a lot of alcohol around as well as physical abuse. Gary was working hard to support his mum and siblings, but it was beginning to get too much for him to deal with.
The day after his 18th birthday, He decided to leave home. He went to stay with his aunt and uncle until things settled down. One day however, Gary’s world fell apart.
“I am a gay man and was an avid diary keeper and my cousin read my diary and told everybody. I came home one day and my bag was packed and that was it; I was told to leave. They told me they were going to contact my mum; that I was disgusting. Homosexuality was still illegal for under 21s at that point,” he says.
Nowhere to turn
Gary was a member of the band in the local Salvation Army and when they found out about Gary’s sexuality, they told him that he could no longer attend as a senior soldier. Gary was too scared to tell his mum about everything and he ended up homeless on the streets.
“When I was rough sleeping, I was arrested a few times for vagrancy. I remember thinking it was crazy because I didn’t realise such a law existed. In hindsight, they were probably arresting me for my own safety,” he recalls.
Gary quickly learnt that the best thing to do was to stay awake all night and sleep during the day time. Fortunately it was summertime so he was able to sleep in parks during the day.
“I hung around Piccadilly a lot. There were a couple of prostitutes there that kind of looked out for me. One day, an outreach worker came up to us – he got me into the Centrepoint hostel. At the time, you were allowed to stay there for two weeks.”
The safe space that Centrepoint offered was a lifeline to Gary. During the day they gave him a list of day centres he could go to for advice and at night they offered him a refuge and the chance to be around other people like him.
“The people that I met there were a big influence on me. There was one member of staff who had been quite badly burnt when she was younger, she really helped me. She just kept telling me it was OK to be gay and gave me lots of reassurance. She encouraged me to have pride in myself. Most importantly, she listened. I’m really grateful to Centrepoint – they helped me get off the streets and that was the first step. When I got to the hostel it also made me realise that there were a lot of us. A lot of the young people there were gay or lesbian and I didn’t feel so alien any more. To be told that you were OK, was amazing,” he recalls.
Gary began to frequent the bars in Soho. Up to that point he hadn’t even kissed a guy. “There were a lot of older guys who would buy you something to eat, or buy you a drink. I didn’t really feel vulnerable though. I remember there had been a serial killer going around that area who had targeted gay men. You would see outreach workers giving out condoms in clubs and stuff who would warn us to be careful. However, on the whole, personally, I felt liberated and safe because this was the first time I had been able to be myself. However, I was desperate for somewhere to live,” he says.
At Centrepoint, the staff encouraged Gary to get in touch with a charity called Phone Home. Gary took the advice and spoke to his mum and sister. “I told them I was gay and felt I couldn’t go home. My mum broke down and cried and asked me if I’d done anything with any guys and I told her I hadn’t. She was worried about my safety because of AIDS and the serial killer. She also wanted me to try it with a girl first. She just didn’t understand.”
Gary was relieved to have come out, but he didn’t feel he could go home. After staying with Centrepoint for two weeks, he stayed at various short stay hostels and then with Centrepoint's help was referred to Alone in London in Kings Cross and from that he was able to secure a supported flat in Woolwich. There he had an amazing keyworker called Mandy who really helped him move his life forwards.
“I often think about my time when I was homeless and I think my life could have so easily have been very different. I had some positives influences around me and I was lucky that there were so many youth projects like Centrepoint around at that time,” he says.
“My definition of family now is very different to others. Just because someone is related, doesn’t make them family; it’s people’s actions and how you feel and respond to someone. I ended up creating a separate family for myself and as I’ve got older, those people are still with me – I’ve got some really good friends and we will always look after each other.”
“I’m still in contact with my mum and my sister, but the rest of them – it’s really hard to forget. There was a lot of hate or ridicule directed at me.”
Today Gary lives with his civil partner (Robert) in East Sussex and works as a Teacher of Deaf. He is also a qualified BSL interpreter. He heads up a Deaf Resource Base in a local school.