From drugs and the streets to the Premier League: How Everton helped save Lee Johnson's life
As temperatures plummet and the sight of homeless people surviving on British streets becomes more common, seemingly by the day, Lee Johnson is not one of those who wonders what it must be like to endure such an existence; he knows. “You feel ill,” he says. “You wake up and you feel like you are frozen. You don’t just feel cold, it’s much more than that. It’s as if your bones have literally been frozen.”
For those of us who often ask ourselves in a kind of ‘There but for the grace of God’ way what it is to be homeless when the weather is as bleak as it is now, that’s our question answered. Mercifully, while speaking from a position of personal experience, Lee’s testimony now belongs to the past tense.
Sat in Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral where he has taken time out from guiding a group of dementia sufferers around a building that Sir John Betjeman once described as one of the greatest in the world, he wears an official Everton tracksuit that not only gives away the team that he works for and supports, it also represents his salvation.
For 18 years, Lee lived on the streets of his hometown, often not far from the magnificent cathedral where this interview takes place. His descent into homelessness as a teenager was drug-fuelled, his addiction creating that tragic cycle of dependency, social exclusion and physical and mental decline. For a time, there seemed no way out. Locked into a daily grind which threatened to break him, opportunities to escape had emerged but Lee had been unable to take them. Two things in particular changed that – his own determination to turn his life around and Everton’s willingness to support him.
Image: Paul Thomas / Getty
As an example of what football clubs can achieve in their own community, Lee’s story is one of the most revealing. Over and over again he uses the word “chaotic” to describe his existence, but that sense of chaos has now been replaced by order. He also has a feeling of belonging and a stake in the very society that he had become detached from. He is also acutely aware of his own transformation and how it came about and wants his story to be known. More than that, though, he wants others to follow his path and he believes Everton can help them just as they helped him.
To understand the significance of where he is now, it is necessary to go back to the point at which his life began to unravel. To my surprise, as someone who was in the same school year as Lee, he traces it back to the time when we got the same bus to Saint Francis Xavier’s and played in the same school football team. “From the outside my life looked alright at the time because I was one of those kids who could get on with most people but that was the age when things started to go wrong for me,” he says.
“I’d say that I was about 12 or 13 when my life started to become chaotic. That was when I started taking drugs and even though it was only light drugs, pot and stuff like that, looking back I’d have to say that that was the starting point. My family, the teachers, most of my mates, they never saw that side of me. The teachers would all talk about how promising my future was but even when they were saying that to me I knew that my life wasn’t going to be mapped out as they saw it.
“It’s quite surreal to think like that now but I can remember being stood in front of me telling me all about my potential and what I might go on to achieve but in my head I’m thinking ‘I know that’s not how it’s going to be'. I could already see that I was going off the rails.
“I was smoking pot, taking LSD, ecstasy, I was drinking; all the kind of things that if I saw my son doing that now I’d be horrified. I’ve looked into what made me go down that route because when I got clean five or six years ago I did a bit of counselling and one of the conclusions I came to was that, even though on the outside looking in everything was good, on the inside it wasn’t. I didn’t feel right so I was doing that kind of stuff as an escape.”
As for many who escape in that way, though, it turned out to be anything but. Soft drugs gave way to harder substances, family breakdown followed and the streets beckoned. “When I was 15 I was getting into harder drugs and I was having to try to hide it,” he recalls. “That was when I started running away and by the age of 16 I was on the streets and I ended up in a homeless hostel for young people. It escalated from there and it wasn’t long before I was taking class A drugs. Heroin didn’t just take over my life at that point, it was my life for the next 16 years.
“I had a family breakdown. My dad was pretty clued up and I can remember him saying to me that my life would amount to nothing if I carried on the way I was going. He was the only one who ever said anything like that to me and it hit me hard but he was right to say it no matter how hard it was for me to hear it.
Image: Christopher Furlong / Getty
“At first I moved in with a girl and her family but I was only a kid myself and it didn’t work out with her so I ended up in this place called Homeground. It’s still open now, it’s mainly for young people who’ve come out of care or who have been on the streets. That was the first hostel that I ever got accepted into. It was all young people under 21 and you had your own room but because it was near town I saw it as a party thing. You had loads of young people, girls, lads, thrown together and it was just chaos but I was there for 15/16 months.
“Then something happened over drugs and they asked loads of us to go. I spent a bit of time on the streets but then I got involved in another hostel called Men’s Direct and I was there for six months. But the problem was that by then I was a chaotic drug user and in the end no hostel would accept me.
It’s a bit different now because places are more willing to take people with that kind of problem but back then they didn’t want to know. If you were going to smoke drugs they didn’t want you on their premises. That was what always got me thrown out of hostels; that and not paying rent because whatever money I had it wasn’t getting spent on food or stuff like that, it was just being used for me to get high or off my head or whatever.
“Once it got to the stage where no one would accept me I had to rough it. There were no other options available to me. That was rock bottom. I must have been around 30 by then. I was sleeping anywhere that I could in town, mainly on Brownlow Hill and near the Adelphi Hotel. There was no set routine. It’s totally different when you’re on the streets compared to when you’re in a hostel. You can’t have a routine because anything can happen at any time, you’re all over the place and at times you feel like you’ve got no one in the world. All you can do is try to look after yourself and at first I had no idea how to do that. That was something that I only really learned when I got clean. Until then I was living on my wits.
“I know people think that they’ve felt the cold but when you’re living as I was you feel it in a different way. Unless you’ve experienced it you can’t imagine how bad it is. You don’t even have somewhere to go to get something to eat or a shower to warm yourself up. You’ve got to go and get your food somehow and get your drugs, the last thing you’re worrying about is getting washed and looking after yourself.”
Transformation began seven years ago when Lee started to use the services on offer at the Whitechapel Centre, Liverpool’s leading homeless charity. It was there that he first came into contact with representatives of Everton’s much admired community operation who immediately tapped into his love for football and for the club he had supported all his life. A single coaching session was the trigger for everything that followed as Lee started to rediscover his own sense of self-worth while also recognising the opportunities that existed for him away from the streets.
“There wasn’t just one thing that changed my life but the first one was probably me realising that I wanted to do something about it because of the state of my mental health after years of taking drugs,” he recalls. “My head was in a bad place and I wanted to sort it out but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I went to the Whitechapel Centre and they helped me to find a place to live. I started to play football with Everton in the Community even though I was still pretty chaotic and things started to turn from there. The next stage was volunteering for Everton in the Community and getting clean. I’d tried before to get clean, I’d even been sent to rehabs all over England and it hadn’t worked for me, but this time it was different because I really wanted to do it.”
Lee’s desire to transform his own life was matched by the determination of Everton and the Whitechapel Centre to help him achieve his goal. After moving into supported living, he became a volunteer for Everton in the Community specialising in supporting people with dementia and went on to work on a range of the club’s social inclusion programmes. He has also re-established his relationship with his family and regularly puts on football coaching sessions at the Whitechapel Centre where his road to redemption began. If English football is looking for a feel good story, few are stronger than his.
“Looking at the way things happened and how they happened, the reality is that the club I’ve always supported helped save my life,” Lee admits. “People from Everton helped me to get back on my feet. I’m not sure anyone else would have been able to do what they did for me. There aren’t many things that I love but I love Everton and that made the difference. That’s why I get emotional when I talk about it.”
The problem, though, as Lee acknowledges, is that he was far from being alone. Official statistics released last week revealed that the number of people sleeping rough on Britain’s streets has reached a six-year high. With as many as 4,134 people sleeping rough on any given night in 2016, the increase led to calls for the government to do more to tackle the problem. “It is a national scandal that in England in the 21st century the number of people forced to sleep rough on our streets is spiralling upwards – and this is only the tip of the iceberg,” said John Healey MP, the shadow housing minister.
“It’s much worse now,” agreed Johnson. “There are many more people living on the streets. You can see it with your own eyes. When I was on the streets, you knew everyone so you knew how many were in the same boat as you. I’d say there was never more than 20 people, there might have been the odd few who floated in and back out again but in the main there was a core group of around that many. Now it looks like they’re hundreds and that’s just in Liverpool.”
The combination of the scale of the problem and their own experience of the positive difference that they can make has prompted Everton to launch "Home Is Where The Heart Is", a fundraising initiative with the aim being to support young people on the brink of homelessness in the Liverpool region. David Unsworth, Everton’s under-23 coach, has been one of the driving forces behind the idea and the former player recently spent a night sleeping rough at Goodison Park with the rest of his squad in an attempt to gain at least some understanding of the experiences of those they are trying to help.
Everton’s ultimate ambition is to meet their fundraising target of £230,000 in order to fund and develop a supported living initiative for young people in Liverpool, delivered by Everton in the Community. The funds raised will be used to purchase, and operate, a house close to Goodison Park which will offer 16 to 23-year-olds who have fallen on hard times, or have perhaps fallen out of the care system, a place to stay in Liverpool.
Aside from offering young adults a roof over their head in difficult times, the Club’s official charity will play a large part in their development by providing them with access to key services, including health and wellbeing support and assistance with education employment and training, as well as encouraging them to contribute to the local community through the NCS programme and volunteering.
“This can make a massive difference,” Lee believes. “The club have really thought it through. I’ve spoken to some of the people involved and they’ve told me about their plans to target young homeless people and I said to one of them ‘If someone would have made that kind of intervention for me when I was that age it could have changed everything for me.’ That’s what a project like this can achieve. It can help some really vulnerable people to get their lives together. I’ll always appreciate what Everton have done for me and now I hope others can benefit in the same way.”