“My life has completely changed, it has completely turned around. I had no hope whatsoever.”
12:00 31 December 2012
(C) James Bass 2012
Addicted to drugs and alcohol, and spending Christmas alone in a Brighton hostel, Tony knew he had hit rock bottom.
He’d dreamed of being a dog handler in the army, but after personal problems led to drink and drugs, everything fell apart and he was left considering ending it all.
But two years after those dark days, Tony has seen his life turn around and this year enjoyed his nicest Christmas for more than two decades alongside companions at a community in Ditchingham, near Bungay.
Tony, 44, is a member of the Emmaus Norwich community, where he lives alongside four others as they develop a business with the aim of becoming self sufficient.
Together they sell furniture and bric-a-brac and are helping to establish the community which could one day welcome between 25-30 companions.
It is a significant change from his days on the streets, when alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health issues dominated his world.
“My life has completely changed, it has completely turned around. I had no hope whatsoever,” he said.
“I was not expecting anything and thought it was a cruel life that I would have to go through alone and suffer what society wants to burden on me. But since Emmaus it has all lifted, I’ve found a purpose and got my life back together.”
Tony was brought up in Lincolnshire after being adopted, but despite a happy home life he struggled at school with undiagnosed attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
He was set to be a dog handler in the army, but when a recruitment officer stood in his way, his dream came crashing down and his life took a turn for the worse.
“This was the time that I started drinking and then in 1993 I started taking drugs,” he said.
“Later that year I had a total breakdown and was sectioned with mental health issues and hospitalised for six weeks. Life was sheer hell due to chronic alcohol addiction.”
Four years ago he left the UK for Amsterdam and then Bordeaux, where he lived on the streets for eight months, before returning to the country in August 2010.
It was in Brighton as he had reached his lowest ebb that he heard of the national Emmaus community, which helps formerly homeless people live and work together.
He was accepted in the community in Carlton, Bedfordshire, and lived there for a year, before applying to move on to the new community in Ditchingham.
Tony said he thinks Emmaus is a “unique organisation” that is completely different to the hostels and housing associations where he felt on his own.
Alongside other companions he lives and works, and it was with them that he spent this Christmas.
“It was absolutely fantastic. It was the nicest Christmas I have had for 22 years, I really enjoyed it,” he said.
“I have had some really bad Christmases, where I was practically suicidal, but this was just like old times.”
In September the community celebrated its first birthday and Tony hand carved a hazelnut especially to be presented to their landlords, The Sisters of the Community of All Hallows, as part of their token rent.
Margaret Somerville, chair of the trustees, said: “I have seen how his demeanour changed when given the task of carving the hazelnut, and the glow of pride on his face when Terry Waite (Emmaus UK president) presented ‘his’ carved hazel nut to the Sisters of All Hallows and the tears they had in their eyes.”
She added: “It is not the big things that matter to someone who has experienced homelessness or suffered real hardship. It is often just those simple touches of kindness or recognition.
“It is those simple moments when you recognise someone’s gifts and see their self-esteem grow and glow.”
Tony hopes in the future to go on to live and work at Emmaus in France and do a sponsored ride on his scooter between all of the Emmaus communities to raise money for them.