Life after homelessness: 'When I moved into my own flat, I cried tears of joy all night'

Interview by Daniel Lavelle and Simon Hattenstone
Life after homelessness: 'When I moved into my own flat, I cried tears of joy all night'. Andy Palfreyman, 54, spent 30 years on the streets before he had a chance encounter with an artist

After living on the streets for 30 years, this month I finally moved into my own place. I knew this was going to be life changing, but I was a little bit scared, because the mundane parts of domestic life are so alien to me.

I was a bit of a rebel as a teenager – I thought I always knew best and my relationship with my family broke down as a result. When I was 19, I left my home in Sandbach, Cheshire, for the bright lights of London.

The little bit of money I had soon ran out and I ended up living on the streets, which became my home for the next three decades. I have struggled for years with my mental health, and depression kept me from seeking help. I would mostly bed down in doorways in central London, around Westminster and Covent Garden. Most rough sleepers in the capital congregate here, as it is where most of the help can be found.

When I was first homeless, I got a job on a building site, but I had to give it up because I couldn’t maintain my personal hygiene. I had nowhere to wash or change my clothes. I started work at 8am, and the charities that provided such facilities opened at 10am and closed at 5pm – when I finished work.

The streets can be frightening. I often suffered abuse from the public. Strangers urinated on me on numerous occasions; on one night, a couple of drunks leaving a wine bar thought it would be hilarious to set my sleeping bag on fire.

I am fortunate that I have never abused drugs or alcohol, although there was a stage when I depended on booze to get myself to sleep at night. I eventually got used to living on the streets. Although my life was monotonous – meandering between day centres and soup kitchens – it wasn’t completely bleak. There is a camaraderie between rough sleepers. I had a group of friends who would share any change, tobacco or food they had been given, and I did the same for them.

Getting off the streets happened all at once. I used to go to the Swiss church in Covent Garden for a coffee and to pass the time. On one occasion, there was an art exhibition next door, featuring the work of Jenny Natusch. I went to see it and ended up telling Jenny my story. She listened to me, and I had the idea to take photographs of the doorways I had slept in over the years. My photographs featured in an exhibition called Cardboard and Caviar in the Swiss church and after that my life changed dramatically. I finally felt like an equal, that I could exist as a full member of society.

I have been off the street for five years and I have two jobs: official warden at the Swiss church and receptionist at Bloomsbury Central Baptist church. My flat has exceeded all my expectations. I have only a few essentials, but I have a big, comfortable double bed for the first time in ages. I have a love for upcycling. Recently, I was walking past a musical instrument shop where the owners were about to throw out an old guitar case; I rescued it and plan to transform it into a coffee table.

Having a flat in my own name felt so surreal that during the first few days I half expected someone else to be living there when I came home. When I moved in, I cried tears of joy all night. When I thought I had composed myself, all it took was for me to look around the room and I was in floods of tears again. After 30 years of homelessness, I finally feel secure. I am looking forward to the rest of my life.

If you are worried about becoming homeless, contact the housing department of your local authority to fill in a homeless application. You can use the gov.uk website to find your local council

For more stories of life after homelessness, read Guardian Cities’ the empty doorway series

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