Andy Hale had a career and a home before a freak accident left him on benefits. Then he found himself living in a car on Southsea seafront and in a tent behind a supermarket. Elise Brewerton tells his story – and why life is now looking up.
Shifting restlessly in his car seat, Andy Hale willed himself to sleep for just a little before the sun came up.
It was now the second week he had been sleeping in his car on Southsea seafront, staring out to sea. He knew he only had a couple of hours before parking charges kicked in and he’d have to find another place to park the lump of cold, hard metal he was calling home.
The 50-year-old father-of-two had worked hard all his life, and had a good career as an enforcement officer with Fareham Borough Council.
But then an accident sent Andy’s life into a downward spiral.
He ended up on benefits in rented accommodation and then became homeless.
He says: ‘Believe it or not, it started when I over-stretched with a hedge trimmer. I injured my neck and back so badly I ended up having to leave my job and I’m now registered disabled.
‘That it turn led to me having a heart attack and it was a knock-on effect from there. Never in a million years did I think I’d end up homeless. But if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
‘I never thought I would be in that position. One minute I was plodding along through life, minding my own business, enjoying my job. The next minute it was like a stack of dominoes had been knocked over.’
In 2010 Andy moved to a shared house in Downhouse Road, Clanfield, with his dog, Genghis. But earlier this year his landlord informed him he would have to move out as he wanted redevelop the property.
The problem was, Andy had nowhere else to go. As a single middle-aged man with no dependents he was at the bottom of the housing priority list with East Hampshire District Council. They could find him emergency bed and breakfast accommodation but he was not allowed to take Genghis, so he refused.
‘Why should he suffer just because my fortunes had taken a bad turn?’ says Andy.
With nowhere to go Andy spent his first night on the streets on July 1.
It was to be, at turns, a terrifying, unpredictable and, ultimately, inspiring, three months.
‘I found a spot in the woods behind Asda in Bedhampton. For three weeks I slept there with Genghis because the supermarket was open 24 hours and I could use the toilet facilities. On the second night there was a torrential downpour and I lost my tent and my sleeping bag.
‘Then someone reported me to Asda and I was told I had to leave.
‘That’s when I ended up using the last bit of money I had to buy an old car which I used to live in. I moved to Southsea because I found out they had all-night toilets there.’
After just one week in the woods Andy’s health deteriorated. He was breathless. His legs ballooned and he could not feel his feet.
On the day of the Race for Life – July 20 – he collapsed on the promenade and racegoers called an ambulance. He says, ‘It was ironic really that they were there to run the Race for Life and I was fighting for my life.’
Doctors discovered Andy had had a mild heart attack and found more than 25 blood clots on his lungs. He was at death’s door.
The stress and discomfort of living on the streets had almost killed him.
But it was a chance meeting in hospital that helped him turn his life around.
The man in the bed opposite his at Queen Alexandra Hospital, Cosham, was on a strict no fluids diet. Every time Andy spotted him trying to drink he would stop him – for his own good.
The man’s family were so grateful that, when he explained his plight, they offered him the use of their Scout hut to stay in when he got out of hospital.
He spent more than a month in the building in South Harting, Chichester. For the first time in months he had something that resembled a home, where he felt safe.
Knowing how unwell Andy was housing officers worked hard to find him a permanent place to live with Genghis. And, after two months living rough, Andy finally has a home to call his own, in Petersfield.
He said: ‘It’s so good to have somewhere to live. But I think, in a way, I’m still in shock over what happened to me. I’m in disbelief that I was homeless.
‘I worked hard all my life and consider myself a reasonable, intelligent man. I was so embarrassed.
‘Nobody should be in that position. Programmes like Benefits Street only make the situation worse. They demonise people on benefits.
‘I’ve never ever seen so many adverts from landlords which said “no DSS’. It’s impossible.’
The only glimmers of light during the dark summer months were the kindnesses shown to him by friends – and complete strangers. Andy says he will be eternally grateful to his friend Sarah Gregson who worked hard to find him his flat.
Also the Coventry family who let them use their scout hut and the housing officer Sue LeClercq who went beyond the call of duty to help him.
His brother Dave was also a big help.
Strangers on a Facebook page called Homeless Andy sent him daily messages of encouragement.
He says: ‘I can never thank them enough. They were so kind to me. Logging on to Facebook, when I could get the internet, and reading those messages kept me going.’