In Mental Health Awareness Week, one man’s story of how drugs, homelessness and despair led to him contemplating suicide – until he found an organisation that cared...

WITH admirable courage and honesty, Paul Roxy is talking about the time he was at his lowest. Caught up in a downward spiral of drug use, he’d found himself sleeping under a bridge on the streets of Middlesbrough and consumed by a sense of hopelessness.

“It’s really frightening,” he says. “I was cold and lonely, with no one to turn to. There were times when I thought the only way out was to commit suicide, but I never had the bottle.”

Today, 51-year-old Paul is in “a better place” thanks to the support he’s received from Diane Eddison, who works for North Star Housing as service co-ordinator for the rough sleepers’ accommodation programme.

The Northern Echo: Paul Roxby during one of his regular meetings with Diane EddisonPaul Roxby during one of his regular meetings with Diane Eddison (Image: Peter Barron)

“I absolutely love Diane – she’s always there for me,” says Paul. “I honestly don’t know where I’d be without the help I’ve had from her and North Star.”

Diane has seen a mental health issues “go through the roof” – along with drug and alcohol problems and domestic violence – due to the isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, immediately followed by the cost-of-living crisis.

“I’m not sure how it could get any worse for people – we’ve had the perfect storm,” she says.

Paul is one of many who have needed help in the North-East. Having grown up in the deprived Thorntree area of Middlesbrough, he’s spent most of his life working on factory production lines. But at 21, he developed a drugs habit – cocaine and amphetamines – and his life fell apart.

“There was never any stability - the jobs I had were always short-term, through agencies,” he explains. “I ended up in hostels, or sofa-surfing, and then on the streets for a week or so. That’s when I was at my lowest.”

Thankfully, a homeless support organisation referred him to North Star. That was 18 months ago, and Paul describes it as “the best thing that could have happened”.

It came at a time when Diane, who had previously worked for a charity supporting young parents and children in Darlington, had just moved to North Star, in a newly created role funded by Homes England.

When she first started, Diane introduced herself to members of Middlesbrough Borough Council’s rough sleepers team, who go out at the crack of dawn to get to know those sleeping on the town’s streets, and help find them support.

“It’s how we identify the most vulnerable,” explains Diane. “There are some people out there who don’t want to move into a house because their friends are on the streets, but we do our best.”

Paul was given safe accommodation in a “supported living” two-bedroom house in Linthorpe – one of six clean and well-equipped properties North Star makes available to the rough sleepers’ programme.

With North Star paying a £90 administration fee, and Citizens Advice helping with the paperwork, Diane successfully applied for a debt relief order to write off Paul’s £15,000 liabilities. Further support came in the form of food and energy vouchers, provided through North Star’s hardship fund.

North Star also supported Paul through a computer training course, enhancing his chances of finding work, and making the transition into independent living.

“Everything they’ve done for me has lifted my spirits – it’s made a massive difference to my mental health. I’ll always be grateful,” he says.

The Northern Echo: Paul Roxby receiving his graduation certificate from former Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston after passing his IT coursePaul Roxby receiving his graduation certificate from former Middlesbrough Mayor Andy Preston after passing his IT course

“I just think I was unlucky in my younger days – but then I got lucky with Dianne. The challenge now is to find a more stable job because I want to work, so I can give myself a decent future.”

Diane devotes five hours of support per week to Paul. She calls him three times a week, and visitis him at home once a week. Although his father has passed away, he also now sees his mother frequently.

“Paul’s had a really hard time but he’s very open about his problems,” she says. “He’s got involved in things he regrets and has struggled with his mental health, but he’s got a real spark now and is desperate to work. He won’t give up – he just needs a break because he’s amazing.”

And yet, Diane concedes that Paul is in a “Catch 22” situation because he’s on universal credit and, if he starts work, it will affect his housing benefit.

Helping rough sleepers is just one aspect of North Star’s wide-ranging work. The charitable housing association also provides supported accommodation for vulnerable young people, older people, and women and children who have been victims of domestic violence.

The supported housing contract lasts for up to two years, with the aim of stabilising tenants’ lives, and clearing their debts, so they can move on to independent living, enabling the accommodation to be freed up for someone else.

And mental health is a priority at the core of every aspect of North Star’s operation.

“When we see tenants, wherever they are, we always make a point of checking on their mental health,” says Diane. “If they aren’t accessing services, we can make referrals, take them to hospital, or to see their GP, but there’s a big demand for crisis support, with waiting lists for counselling growing all the time.

“We’re a shoulder to lean on but it’s a pressure on staff because we simply can’t be there 24/7. The cost-of-living payments from the Government give people a little bit of hope but we are still seeing people who are suicidal because they don’t know how to cope. We give out emergency numbers, but you worry about it when you go home, so it has an impact on your own mental health.”

Despite those pressures, Diane loves her job because she knows she can make a difference to the lives of people like Paul.

“I’m proud to work for North Star because everyone is so committed to those who need help. I’ve had tenants in tears because they can’t believe someone is giving them a chance to rebuild their lives. These are dark times but, if I can put a smile on someone’s face, that makes it all worthwhile.”

Indeed, just a mention of Diane’s name is enough to make Paul Roxby smile because she has given him hope, when not so long ago he couldn’t see any.

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Having had friends who “tipped over the edge” and took their own lives in recent years, he now wants to use his experiences to support others as a rough sleepers advocate for North Star.

 “I’d like to do that because everyone needs a bit of help sometimes, don’t they?” he says.

  • Next week, as Mental Health Awareness Week continues, how North Star Housing supports the mental health of its staff.
  • To find out more about the support services provided by North Star Housing, go to: