“When I was a kid I always had this urge to express my feelings through writing,” says Michael, a resident at YMCA Wimbledon.
Twice, he tells me, he was arrested in Ethiopia where he is originally from, protesting the government. “Injustice makes me angry,” he explains.
“When I write I draw upon my own feelings, as well as other people’s experiences. I like chatting to people, and I will use what people tell me about their lives as inspiration. You could say that half of my writing is self-experience, and the other half is pure imagination”.
According to Michael, his language is “simple, but strong” and through writing, he also gets a form of release.
A little while after Michael moved in to the hostel at YMCA Wimbledon last year, he started volunteering for Refugee Action Kingston. He used to show poems to Clare Fry, Support Worker at YMCA LSW and founder of the Benchmark Community Theatre. Clare saw Michael’s creative potential and asked if he wanted to join the theatre group.
“I went to see their play ‘Stories from the Circle’ which they performed in the summer, and I joined shortly after,” Michael says.
“Also this summer, I went on the creative residential that was organised for the residents in the Wimbledon and Surbiton hostels to Dunford,” he says. “I actually went twice, one time with each group because it was that good!”
“Writing and performing with Benchmark is mostly a way of staying active” Michael says. “However, it’s nice to meet passionate people like Clare and the rest of the Benchmark members, who are all easy to work with and nice to hang out with”.
Michael and the rest of the Benchmark cast are currently working on a new play which will premiere on 26th March at YMCA Surbiton. It is written by Benchmark member Amber Daly and it’s based on interviews she has conducted with homeless people living at the YMCA.
“In the play, I am just a channel for someone else’s experience” Michael says. “But obviously, being homeless myself, I can also relate on a personal level to the issues in the play. Sometimes, other people manage to express perfectly what you feel, but cannot express yourself”.
In short, the play is about “the traumas and difficulties about being homeless” Michael explains.
“It’s also political – it’s about how homeless people are dehumanized and simply reduced to a number. It shows the detachment between the people and the government” he explains.
Michael doesn’t have a lot of positive things to say about the current government.
“I don’t agree with the housing policies of this government and especially not how people with all sorts of issues are put together in one place, it doesn’t help anyone. There is very little support out there and I don’t understand how the government can allow this to happen”.
University in Sheffield
Originally from Ethiopia and Eritrea, Michael says he grew up in a privileged family but still left his home country for England.
“I wanted to become a doctor, but this was impossible in Ethiopia and it was decided I had to become an accountant. I hated it. There was no future for me in Ethiopia so I came to Sheffield University where I studied pharmaceutical science”.
By the time Michael got his degree, however, recession had hit and finding a job was difficult. He decided to move to London, where there were more options for employment.
However, finding a professional job in London was hard for Michael and although he’s had an impressive list of smaller and bigger jobs over the years, the combination of high costs of living and low paid jobs eventually led to him becoming homeless.
Michael sofa surfed with a friend for a while, before he ended up at a hostel in King’s Cross.
By then, he had already spent the night on the street a few times.
“London has changed so much over the last few years” Michael says, “when it comes to housing, transport, everything. The city has just become too crowded, and there isn’t enough support for those in need of it. My experiences with the council and the housing services in this city are that of being sent from one council to another, because no one wants to ‘claim me’. I found it hard to get help anywhere, I was always sent elsewhere”.
Currently, Michael is doing volunteer jobs and looking to change his career to get into teaching. “I am getting a DBS vetting and I am trying to get my teaching qualifications. In the future, I’d like to teach maths and science”.
Besides teaching, he’d love to continue writing and maybe one day get his work published. “I am working on a children’s book and also a collection of poems” he says. “The children’s book is about an ‘invisible uncle’, it’s inspired by my sister and her children who live in the States so to them, I am the invisible uncle”.
Although Benchmark and the writing is a respite, Michael wishes his future looked brighter.
“The writing keeps me going, but you do get quite fed up by seeing your life going in no direction”.
Big Issue! – A poem by Michael T
What?! Nowhere to go?
My life was good a few days ago.
Big Issue! I am faced with homelessness,
‘How can it happen to me?’ It doesn’t make sense.
Feelings of being lost, fear and despair,
A life in the streets that needs repair,
To be honest I am very scared!
But wait – here comes my pride,
Can’t just give up, go on and ride.
With whatever life gives, You must abide.
‘Big Issue!’ ‘Big Issue!’ Go on Fight! Fight!
Until one day You get it right.
‘Big Issue!’ – It is a Big Issue!!!