Interview with John Priestley

Sadly not too long ago you would have found John Priestley on the streets of Rochdale, doing everything to stay warm, not knowing what was going to happen from one day to the next.

Now, he is being invited to places like the House of Lords and can be found doing what he loves, including working on his art projects and volunteering.

John talks to Revive Magazine and tell’s about his remarkable journey in his own words.

HOW IT ALL STARTED

It happened in July 2015. Basically, I ended up in a situation where I was being evicted because of rent arrears. I was being funded to set up a business by The European Community. The two benefits cancelled each other out.

The European Community said I couldn’t have it if I was on benefits. Benefits said you couldn’t have this if you were on that, so I ended up with nothing. Instead of going for help, I ended up having a nervous breakdown.

This resulted in me being evicted from my council home. I sofa-surfed for four months, and in November 2015, I was on the streets of Rochdale freezing with nowhere to go.

John Priestley
John Priestley – Image credit Jamie Lundy

What happened next was a stranger coming to help, finding me at 4:30 am on a bench and said, “You must be freezing, mate, come back to mine.” He shared his food he planned on eating that weekend and let me sleep on his floor in a spare sleeping bag.

He even risked being thrown out himself as well since he wasn’t supposed to have visitors. He took me to the council on the following Monday and saved my life. It was approximately -5 degrees that night.

I could have been another statistic. There have been 50 deaths amongst the homeless this year in Greater Manchester due to cold weather.

But this guy got me back in the system. I was helped by Petrus, who got me into STEP, which is the overnight emergency shelter.

After a week, I was transferred over to Halsall House Sanctuary Trust on Tweedale Street; I was there for eight months.

From there I started to get my life back together. I went in with no confidence, nothing.

If I go back three years now, I was scuttling out of the room, having a meal, scuttling back into a room, half an hour of the telly, not talking to anybody.

Their five-point plan got me on the right steps to get to The Limes (supported accommodation).

After eight months, I transferred over to The Limes here, and I’ve been here for just two and a half years now.

Obviously, The Limes has been the key thing because here you’re independent, I can do my volunteering in Manchester, and do whatever it is I need to do, but now I have help whenever I need it with key workers around me.

With support from The Limes, I have started volunteering in Manchester at Back on Track.

I was a student there for a year and after a bit, it turned into a volunteering position.

John Priestley – Image credit Jamie Lundy

‘HAPPY ACCIDENTS’

There have been lots of happy accidents in the last few years. There is a wall chart where everybody puts their hobbies in as an icebreaker. Because of what I put of art history, someone told me “You should be on the course I have just been on.”

So, I applied, and because of that, I got into volunteering. I did a 10-week course at Manchester Museum, and from there I got a placement at the Football Museum, with 94 volunteers and I’m now one of four supervisors.

I’ve been there since July 2016. It’s given me all the life skills and confidence.

That combined with Back on Track and The Limes, I’ve been supported in my dreams, in what I want to do.

I am happy to keep volunteering, and they’re happy to keep me as one.

My greatest achievement would be the award I won due to my work at the Manchester International Festival.

Because I did some volunteering for them in 2017, I was nominated by them and the Football Museum for the Be Proud Manchester Volunteer of the Year.

I was one out of 110,000 volunteers in Manchester! I was in the top six, and to be that out of 110,000 is pretty good going!

That had been a key thing of the last few months, that along with the Museum of Homelessness, It’s as though my life has followed a path after being rescued off that bench.

What happened was I did a volunteering day at the Central Library in Manchester, and somebody said to me that there was an eight-day course in London, where they wanted people who had been homeless to do an art exhibition.

I said I would give it a go. So, I applied to the Museum of Homelessness down in London, went down in September, and I put a picture in for an art project.

I was given a bursary to fund an art project, and 16 of us applied. The top five got their project financed, and I was one of the lucky five! My art is all about recycling.

John Priestley
John Priestley – Image credit Jamie Lundy

I turn rubbish into art! And the hope is because I’ve been working with Andy Burnham on his rough sleeping initiative, there will be key pieces of me telling my story from the last few years, then there will be some for sale, money raised will be donated to Manchester and Rochdale local homeless charities.

It’s a combination of putting a positive prospect on homelessness because there’s so much negativity.

It’s crazy. Everyone assumes all the bad things.

They never assume people are there because of relationship problems, whatever. It’s always assumed to be drink and drugs, which it isn’t. I want to be the positive side of homelessness to show from that bench to where you can get to.

GOOD THINGS TO COME

I’ve got phase two of my art project. I said I’ll be doing something next year in Manchester. I’ve also got an invite to do a 3-D Rochdale Town Hall for the local mayor for Rochdale’s Got Talent.

I was down in London for a Christmas party, and they gave me the invitation to the House of Lords. Not many homeless people come off the bench and end up at the House of Lords!

THE ONLY WAY IS UP
Let’s put it this way – I was at the very worst place of my life. My neighbour here said I had hit rock bottom at one point. She said rock bottom is the foundation you build on.

It’s very true. I’ve built on it, and since then I’ve gone steadily upwards, not trying to do too much, just trying to help myself build-up, and most importantly help others. I’ve had people tell me that since I’ve won the award, I look happy.

John Priestley
John Priestley – Image credit Jamie Lundy

I can quote 24 people, for each month I’ve been at The Limes, who have said I’ve inspired them. If I can keep doing that, I’ve succeeded.

I’m just doing my best, just being me. I can quote my granny, who said when I was young, “As long as you have tried your best, you can’t do any more than that.” I was given that advice at eight years of age and I still use it – so, thank you, Gran!