Craig Wilson's life fell apart more quickly than he could have imagined.
Three years ago, the hard-working electrician’s mate, and dad-of-two, was living in a flat in Sharrow when his boss revealed he had to lay him off, due to a lack of work. After applying for Universal Credit, he had a chat with his landlord who agreed to wait for the rent money for the few weeks it would take for Craig’s credit to come in.
“He seemed fine with it,” Craig explains with a shake of his head.
“But not long after that, I returned home to find the locks had been changed and all my stuff had been thrown out, literally, on the street.”
His things had been ransacked and anything of value had been stolen. What was left was soaking from laying out in the rain. All Craig had left was an overnight rucksack and the clothes on this back. A couple of days later, when his Universal Credit payment came in, he decided to buy a tent, camp in Jordanthorpe woods and live off his benefit money while he worked out what to do next.
He approached the council but was told that he was not a priority as he wasn’t vulnerable enough. He was unable to get any help. After about three months Craig’s money ran out and as he returned to the woods one evening, he found his tent had been stolen and the rest of his belongings destroyed. Not knowing what else to do, Craig walked into the city and spent the next 15 months sleeping rough on the streets.
“I think I was in a state of shock, going from what I would class as a ‘normal’ life to this in such a short space of time. I felt extremely vulnerable on the streets; I was threatened and robbed, which still amazes me; people trying to rob someone who clearly has nothing.
“Having contributed positively to society all my life, I feel the system let me down badly at my time of greatest need. It was a horrendous time.
“It also broke my heart to be snubbed and judged by passers-by who had no idea what I’d gone through.”
As the months went by, Craig contended with crushing loneliness and freezing temperatures - but then something amazing happened.
“I met John Russell – my saviour,” the 40-year-old says simply.
“We got chatting and he invited me to his home for tea. It was such a kindness. As I got up to leave that evening, John said I could stay in his spare room. Over the next few days, he helped me begin the process of getting my life back together, including helping me register for benefits. I stayed with him for six months, and finally felt safe again.”
Sadly John died last year, but Craig says he will be forever grateful to him, and the chain of events he set into motion. From meeting John, Craig reached out to, and got help from, The Ben's Centre, and the Salvation Army, and even began volunteering at his local foodbank.
“I was only too pleased to give something back, and to offer a little hope to men and women who'd been as low as I'd been just a short while before. I still volunteer there every Tuesday and Friday.”
It was around this time that Craig's support worker, Katie Hardy, told him that a local family – Charlotte and Robin Codina and their three children – had approached her wanting to offer a room to someone in need.
“I moved in with the family nearly a year ago,” he says.
“I’d been trying to get a council flat of my own for a while, but I knew it wasn't going to be a short process, and it felt wonderful to be in that family environment again. I do what I can to earn my keep around the house and garden, and loved spending time with the family and their wonderful boys.”
Three years on from losing everything, Craig’s life has changed so much, but thanks to the support of a host of wonderful people - and his own determination – he is slowly rebuilding everything he lost.
He now also works at Wildwood Artisan Gifts & Coffee Shop, on Fitzwilliam Gate, where owners Linz and George Lonchar were only too happy to give him an opportunity to get back into the workplace.
“I love it,” he says.
“I’m cooking, I’m baking, I feel like I’m learning entirely new skills I can build on going forwards. I’m also very thankful for the job opportunity as I don’t believe a recently homeless person would have had any chance of getting one via the usual routes.”
Linz adds: "We were delighted to be able to offer Craig this opportunity, and it’s a decision we’ve never regretted as Craig has proved to be trustworthy, capable and eager to learn new skills.”
Craig is currently bidding on properties, and hoping to have his own home again in the near future. He’son good terms with his former partner and sees his own two boys twice a week, and says he hopes they’re proud of the way he’s managed to pull his life back together.
“I believe that you get out of something whatever you're willing to put in, but there's no way I could have done all this by myself, nobody could, it's too much for someone who has nothing to take on alone,” he explains.
“I long for the day when everyone who ends up in the unfortunate position I did, is seen as genuinely vulnerable and is offered support by the council.
“In my case, it was about having a few people who were willing to turn to help, instead of turning away.”