I was lucky enough to meet Michael while looking at potential partner charities for Growing Happy. I’m very glad that I did. Michael has devoted a large part of his life to making a difference and doing something he believes in. When you visit him, and the Barons Court Project day centre you feel the huge opportunity for local communities of passionate people to start supporting the homeless and those suffering with mental ill-health.
For me it starts by creating a warm, safe and non-judgemental place that respects everyone’s individual rights equally. Sometimes that is enough. We’re all different, so our responsibility or opportunity is to create the right environment and then to see what grows.
Michael once talked to me about the almost unavoidable transfer of power whenever we walk past a homeless person on the street. Just imagine being literally looked down at all-day long and how this would make you feel over a long period of time.
In all aspects of our life, I think we can do more to get on the other person’s level, and sometimes this means physically. Michael has a natural ability to connect on your wavelength and I hope Growing Happy can continue to learn from, and support, the work of Barons Court project.
Michael is the Director of the Barons Court Project, Hammersmith and Fulham’s only drop-in centre for people who are homeless or living with mental health issues. The project offers a range of practical services for people who are homeless including: showers, laundry, phone charging, postal collection, haircuts, clothing store and more. For all service users there are meals in our basement café, an IT suite, library, arts and crafts sessions, yoga, drama and a music group. Peer Support groups are facilitated for women and people from the BAME communities. 1-1 Support to help people with more in depth issues is also provided. The centre served 200 individuals in 2017 with just under 6,000 attendances.
Tell us about your struggles with mental health?
I’ve been reflecting on a time when I had a real and acute struggle with my mental health. Indulge me whilst I give you some background on why I was left bereft and suddenly desperate.
I left school at 16. I was informed that I was “too thick” to do A-levels and go to University by my teachers. They said: “Why don’t you get a job in a bank, it’s a job for life and a decent pension?”. I soon realised that although I was good at counting, banking was definitely not for me, so after much thought and exploration, I ended up studying theology (ha those teachers were wrong). I have a strong faith and my sense of calling was real, so after graduating I became a support worker in a large hostel for homeless women. After further part time study, I took on managerial roles and 6 years later went on to be CEO of a small YMCA, hostel for homeless young people.
My career continued to progress and after travelling to South Africa to manage a charity in Johannesburg, I wanted to re-join the YMCA. The ethos suited me, it was liberal and we worked with people of all faiths and none. Eventually, I secured my dream job, managing a large 130 bed hostel for young homeless people in Stockwell. It was tough, as the project was gang-ridden and serious incidents were an everyday occurrence, but I knew it was where I was meant to be. We worked hard with the local police to clear out the gangs and started to see the results as young people began to feel safer; their lives blossoming and starting to change for the better.
However, a sudden reorganisation meant four of us, holding the same position across the organisation, had to reapply for three new jobs. I put my heart and soul into the application and interview process. But the day after the interview I was summoned to an impersonal hotel in Croydon, opposite the head office, to be told I “hadn’t scored highly enough” and “wasn’t passionate about young people”. I was being made redundant. I sat in a chair and tears started to fall down my cheeks. This was my vocation, my raison d’etre and it was being taken away in an instant. I was persuaded that it would be better if I didn’t work my notice period. Better for whom I thought?
Then came the depression. Within one week I had sunk into a stupor of feeling totally useless. I was staying up until 3.00am watching films I had seen before, some the night before, and I had no reason to get out of bed the next day. I started to slide further into despair, becoming angry with myself that I was such a failure. I told myself I was worthless and useless and imagined what an embarrassment I must be to my family and friends. My world had come crushing down and I didn’t feel I had the energy or ability to change it.
How did you get through that period?
After a few weeks of downward spiral, I set myself some targets: 1. Get back into a routine of going to bed early and getting up in the morning. 2. Take a walk everyday through Greenwich Park, rain or shine, and at least get out of the flat. 3. Every evening, look for 1 thing to be positive about from the day.
Thankfully I am blessed with loving parents, family and friends. They helped rebuild me mentally and assured me that I wasn’t useless and that I had gifts to offer. I spent time cooking, making soup and started visiting local attractions I’d never properly explored.
One particularly good friend from my previous role, Hannah, rang me regularly. She knew how I would be feeling and she kept checking in on me. I will always value the kindness of the people who cared for me in that period and am grateful that with their help I was able to dig deep and find some inner strength. I also reflected that I was extremely lucky to have never been without work (for any real length of time) before and to have had jobs that I was meant to be in and loved. That is a real gift.
What are you doing now?
Hannah rang me one day to tell me she had seen a job I must apply for. It was Director of Barons Court Project. I looked at the specification and informed her it wasn’t for me and it was too far away. “Mickeylove, you have to apply” she said. I replied: “Why must I apply?”. Calmly and cheekily she responded: “because you don’t have a job”. Good point, this time I really had no argument!
Hannah was right, so I did apply and on the day before the interview visited the project. Within about three minutes I felt an inner peace, there was something extremely special going on at this place (I don’t have adequate words to describe it, so please come and experience it for yourself). I spent time absorbing what was taking place here, listening to the hopes and fears of the community. I prepared for the interview that night and gave it my all.
A couple of days later I was informed that I hadn’t got the job. I listened to the feedback about their “exceptional candidate” and how I wasn’t quite as good in various areas. As the conversation drew to a close I thanked the Trustee for the feedback and suddenly thought to ask: “If your exceptional candidate doesn’t work out, would you take me as a second preference?”.
Twelve days later, I got that call, and was offered the job. And yes, I’m still here today, four years on. My role is to lead this wonderful community of unique individuals, as we journey through life’s ups and downs. I want to ensure we live life in all its fullness and, for now, I know this is where I’m meant to be.
What are your final pieces of advice?
Enjoy the short time we have in this earthly life, it’s a precious gift.
Look for the good in others; it is always there to be found.
Keep a good support network – this requires being there for others as well as them being there for you.
Treat yourself – If I am having a bad week I often buy myself some flowers.
Pursue an interest, mine is travelling and experiencing new cultures and communities.
Give without expecting anything in return; it is the most liberating feeling.
Love yourself, as until you do this, you cannot fully love others.