From homeless sleeping in Walsall Arboretum to new job as housing officer
“I felt bewildered, lonely and vulnerable. But now I feel lucky and very happy.”
Walsall Council’s healthy homes officer Paul Hartill spends his working days helping residents in his job with the housing standards and improvements team.
But just more than 18 months ago, the 60-year-old found himself without a roof over his head and sleeping rough in the town’s arboretum park.
A combination of devastating factors including finding himself out of work for the first time in 30 years due to redundancy, the tragic loss of his parents and long-term partner within a period of a few years and an inability to pay off a deluge of bills sent Paul on a downward spiral.
But now he is working in the housing sector which helped him get back on his feet and is developing his role as a ‘rough sleepers champion’ to help others in the position he was once in.
His remarkable turnaround began when he discovered the Darwall Street Night Shelter, one of the authority’s successful initiatives to support homeless people, in December 2017 – following eight weeks of being on the streets.
His housing officer Herbie Khosah, whom he’d met a year earlier, was alerted to the fact he was using the shelter and got back in touch with him.
After seeing how ill he looked, she got him an emergency appointment with doctors and helped him re-engage with support services.
Herbie helped him deal with the mounting bills, get the correct benefit support he was entitled to and, with the help of Walsall Housing Group, get him into a flat that suited his needs.
By March 2018, he was debt free and getting treatment for the Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and collapsed lung he had been diagnosed with.
And his fortunes changed further for the better when the Job Centre contacted him later in the year to alert him to the vacancy at Walsall Council.
After a competence test, followed by an interview, Paul found out he got the job just before Christmas last year.
The university graduate said: “When I was sleeping rough in the arboretum, I felt bewildered. I’d ask ‘why am I here?’ I wasn’t scared but felt vulnerable and lonely.
“I was hungry and tired – I’d often purposely walk for hours and hours to make myself tired so that I could sleep.
“I’d sometimes sit and watch people going by and wonder if they knew I was homeless. I’d think ‘are you going home for a meal, to wash because I’m not?’
“When it was cold, there was no escape from it but the layers of clothing and sleeping bag. It was very, very cold and in peak winter at that time.
“When I met other rough sleepers, there was camaraderie and they told me about people like the Midland Langar Seva Society, who do an incredible job feeding the needy every night in the town centre.
“I was sitting on a bench in the rain one day when a lady approached me and told me about the Night Shelter.”
When he first met Herbie, she got him a discretionary housing payment to alleviate his financial pressures but an inability to secure a new job combined with his personal problems resulted in him suffering again.
He added: “I was applying for jobs and getting interviews only to be told I was very good ‘but’… It was a final straw and I just had enough of rejection and failure.
“I started ignoring the letters for bills and court summons – it was the ostrich approach.
“But Herbie went above and beyond for me. I was on the brink and it was difficult for me to accept what had happened to me. But I don’t think I’d be here if it wasn’t for her and now we are colleagues.”
Herbie said: “When I heard he was at the Night Shelter, I was upset. I was worried about his health despite Paul saying he was ok.
“But importantly he wanted to re-engage. Sometimes it is hard for people to do that but when he was homeless, he’d spend a lot of time in the library reading and using the computers. He wanted help.
“The collaborative working between us, Walsall Housing Group and the Job Centre was crucial. I bought him a mobile phone so I could keep in touch all the time.
“He is inspirational to others in the position he was in for the barriers he has overcome. He is truly remarkable.”
Paul said: “I feel very lucky for meeting the people that I did. When I was told I’d got the job – it was the best Christmas present I’d ever had.
“The first couple of nights I was sleeping rough on the stairwell of the Civic Centre. Now I walk past it to go to work.
“Getting my first pay slip was amazing and a few weeks ago I got an official Walsall Council letter. I was worried at first because it used to mean bad news but it was telling me I was getting a pay rise.
“I’m happy and I’ve not felt like this in a long time.”