Housing

'When I’m inside, the walls start closing in'

Allen Stokes is a war veteran who suffers with PTSD. Telford and Wrekin council provided him with emergency accommodation over the course of the pandemic. His PTSD, however, meant that he struggled to remain inside.

Allen Stokes (nicknamed ‘Tiny’) is a former French Foreign Legion Officer who served in Iraq in 1991. Since the mid-1990s he has suffered from CPTSD [complex post-traumatic stress disorder] which has caused relationship breakdowns, a lack of stable accommodation as well as a suicide attempt. Offered a flat during the pandemic by Telford and Wrekin Council, Stokes tried numerous times to make it work. Having been left with minimal support however, Stokes’ PTSD kicked in and meant that he regularly chose to sleep in the local woodlands over the accommodation he had been provided with. 

I was living in a doorway in Telford at the start of the first lockdown. For the past 20 years, I’d been moving around a lot, in and off the streets. I was quite happy where I was, I was clean, rarely drinking … I only tend to drink when someone buys me a can of beer anyway nowadays.

The council rang me up and told me they needed me off the street, told me they had a hotel sorted for me. There was just no way I could have gone into a hotel and I told them that straight away. My PTSD would have become so bad I’d start posting people through the windows or something stupid.

I was worried about a mix of things; the closed-in space, the number of people, but the type of people also. Some of them would be shoplifters, you’ll get druggies as well, I just couldn’t be dealing with it. I’ve tried multiple occupancy housing before, I don’t get on with people.

Don’t get me wrong I can take on 10, 20 blokes and not sweat, I can charge down a battlefield and not feel any emotion, but tell me to go in a supermarket and I’m falling apart. I know, it makes me feel pathetic that I can’t even do my own shopping, but there are certain things that I just can’t do anymore.

I would be shouting, screaming, crying in my sleep.

I was part of Operation Desert Storm in the French Foreign Legion, 1991, Iraq. Unlike the British forces, the French Foreign Legion doesn’t do tours. You go out there and you stay out there until one side surrenders. The war started in January, when we went to the front line. We stayed there until after Saddam surrendered.

Back in the UK, I started to work, moved from one job to another. A lot of places wouldn’t accept me because they thought one day I would just up and leave to go back to the Foreign Legion. I got involved in crime, went off the rails for some time. I ended up doing four and a half years for an armed robbery.

I moved in and out of relationships. I’d meet a girl and stay with her for a bit, but PTSD is a very difficult thing for other people to live with, so it never worked out.

Plus, it’s when times are going well that the PTSD comes back. There was one girl who I really liked, but it would be the middle of the night and I would start shouting, screaming, crying in my sleep. Even when she would wake me up, I would stay just sobbing into my pillow. It’s really hard to stop that kind of emotion with PTSD.

Back then it was a relatively new illness, people didn’t really get it. The internet wasn’t available for us to research and, honestly, it was destroying her. So, I walked away. That was the mid-90s and when I first went on the streets.

It’s not just nightmares, I’ll have non-epileptic fits as well. The doctors have described it to me almost as a safety mechanism; the brain knows it’s overloaded with memories and emotions and just can’t cope, so will shut down for a few seconds.

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At the start of lockdown I explained to the council that I couldn’t go into a hotel. I said if they came down, gave me a set of keys, and the support that I need, then I would get off the street like they wanted. There are so many empty flats in Telford, I didn’t think it would be that hard for them to do.

Sure enough, the next day I got a phone call telling me to go to such-and-such an address, that someone would meet me there and I would be shown around. I got there and they just said: ‘Please sign here, there’s your keys, goodbye.’ I hadn’t even seen the flat before I had to sign.

The flat was in Telford, where I grew up. It was a beautiful flat, a nice quiet area, but it was always inevitable I was going to struggle.

The only support I was offered were phone calls every now and then with an anonymous person so I could offload. My phone’s not exactly brilliant and, anyway, to me that’s just not support. I needed someone to come in, in-person, and ask if I’m alright. At the start they would also drop off a food parcel every so often, but it was never things you could make a proper meal with. I had to ask mates to either go shopping with me or for me.

It actually took me four weeks to find the washing machine, it was only when I went to pull a panel out that I realised I had one. For four weeks I had been visiting a mate’s place to do my washing. It sounds daft but I haven’t been inside for so long, I haven’t got a clue. I was paying into the gas and electric meter; I still have no idea whether it was going to my flat or towards someone else’s bill. I didn’t know how to register for it or whether I even had to.

When I’m inside, the walls can start breathing, closing in on me. This place had high ceilings. I ended up just sitting there looking at the walls and getting paranoid. As soon as there was banging or shouting outside, I’d be at the window looking, checking. So, when things started getting on top of me, I would take breaks out into a woodland and sleep there.

I do like to have a shower or a bath every now and then, but outdoors I have never had any problems, I feel quite well. So I went to-and-fro between the woods and the flat during that first lockdown.

I tried ringing the council to explain the situation and how I was feeling, but you get passed from pillar to post. They told me all they could do was offer me the support they had already mentioned, those anonymous phone calls. In the end, you give up.

I don’t do any harm. If I stop in a doorway, it’s cleaner when I leave than when I get there.

I’ve never managed to get much support from the NHS. When I first approached them, they had an 18-month waiting list. I keep moving around as well, so every time I start somewhere new, I’m on the bottom of the list again.

I don’t know why, but they reckon it is a symptom of PTSD, not being able to settle. I also think it depends on my surroundings. If I don’t get on with my surroundings then I can’t stay there. I hate the town I was born in for example. If I went back there today, I’d be back on the drugs and drinking too much.

The worst thing I could have done after that first lockdown was go back to that flat, but I did. And it was during the second lockdown that my ceiling came down. We had had some heavy snow. I was actually asleep on the sofa about 10 minutes before. I decided to get up and head to bed and all of a sudden there was this crash and the ceiling had caved in.

Ceiling-fell-through-in-Allens-temporary-accommodation-Credit-Allen-Stokes

That was it for me, I gave up. I went to live on Wrekin Hill and just went back to my old life. Over Christmas time I was on the street in Gloucester and back to moving around. I tried returning to the woods near the flat for a bit but the landowner moved me on.

I don’t do any harm. If I stop in a doorway, it’s cleaner when I leave than when I get there. If I have a cigarette, I’ll flick the end off and the knob will go in my pocket. But people will always try and move you on.

At the moment I’m in a tent in a field near to Bridport in Dorset. I’m slowly saving up for what I know I can cope with; a boat I can live on and turn into a business. I go out busking during the day and whatever I don’t spend on food goes towards my boat. I’ve got a long way to go, but I’ll get there.

There’s a lot of people out there who think that all homeless people are drug dealers and alcoholics and shoplifters. We’re not all like that.

Everybody’s got a story, no matter who they are. For me, I just get on better in nature than I do in bricks and mortar.

As told to Cachella Smith.

Allen has a podcast and a book of poetry detailing his life experiences.

PTSD UK is a dedicated charity for people living with the condition and the mental health charity Mind has self-care advice for PTSD.

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