12 years after escaping the Iraq war, going from living on the streets to couch surfing, a former asylum seeker can now start his life anew. Mohammed Ahmed, known as Mo, describes his years of living without stable accommodation as ‘black’, but now, thanks to a new Wigan Council program that provided him with a fully furnished flat, he can see some ‘light in the dark’ ‘.

Mo left his family and his war-torn home country behind to come to the UK in 2008. He had to wait until 2020 before getting official papers that would allow him to work legally. In that time, the 38-year-old “has done what he had to do” to survive, he told Local Democracy Reporting Service.

Waiting for the Home Office to grant him asylum, he ended up living on the streets of Wigan, leaving him spending the lonely hours of the day walking from Leigh to Tyldesley every day, whatever the weather.

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“Before I moved to Wigan I was homeless, found accommodation but then became homeless again,” said the Atherton resident. “I called the council who sent me to a shelter (The Brick) in Leigh and then went to other hotel accommodation.

“The Brick helped me a lot, they offered me a flat, it was really suitable and perfect for me and I really love it.”

Mohammed Ahmed, 38, formerly homeless now living in Atherton, Wigan(Image: Local Democracy Reporting Service)

The Brick is a Wigan-based charity providing services to people who are homeless, poor or facing a debt crisis. As its name suggests, it provides a safe and solid building block for people in crisis to start building a new life and become valued members of society.

“My health will soon be fine and I will be able to work on my own,” Mo continued. Now I can’t do anything, before my life was black.

“Since I’ve known them (the council’s homeless support team), it’s like there’s a light open for me and I follow that light now.

“I want to have a new life with this (opportunity). I remember when everything was black, I tried to kill myself but I couldn’t do it.

“I did things to myself, but now I’m not thinking like that. Mentally that was my lowest point.

leigh town center(Image: MEN)

“The Ministry of the Interior picked me up when they gave me the paper that allowed me to work, that’s when I was finally able to do something.

“Friends helped me, strangers helped me (when I was homeless). I really appreciated that.

“Sometimes the government gave me accommodation on a 10-month visa when my case was reviewed, but then I was homeless again. There were points where I thought I had everything and then everything would work again.

“Now I feel that I will not return to that cycle. At that time they wouldn’t let me work, I had to beg people”.

Mo is one of 11 success stories to emerge from Wigan Council’s project, launched in 2021, which aims to get people off the streets and back into society. According to municipal statistics, in 2017 there were just over 30 sleepers in the area and, since this new accommodation operation started just over 18 months ago, it has been greatly reduced. A count conducted on November 24 of last year identified only four homeless people in the area.

When he got his new flat, Mo said that he was dancing all night, that he was “too excited to sleep.”

Main street in Atherton (Image: Vincent Cole Manchester Evening News)

“My plan is to move forward, not back down,” Mo said, speaking about the process of how he got his council accommodation in Atherton. “I didn’t know how to pay the bills before, the council team helped me with that.

“Everything in the house is perfect, it even came with furniture. After I got my flat, I started to go to university to learn English properly. Before, when I did something, I had nowhere to turn.

“I don’t know why it took so long, but now that I have those papers (from the Ministry of the Interior) I can work. I came from Iraq, escaping the war.

“I come from a really scary place, I lost my family. My father passed away when I was young and I have not seen my mother or sister since I left Iraq.

“My first plan is to find them now that I have this accommodation. I have spoken to the Red Cross and now they are looking for them.

“Finding my family is not up to me right now, getting a job is in my power. I’m in college, trying to connect more with people and going back to my apartment. I’m happy, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

Mo is not alone in his grief over the loss of his loved ones. William Elvin, also previously homeless, lost his brother in a drug-related incident when he was passing through the council housing system. Will had a near-death experience, similar to the death of his brother, which landed him in the hospital under blue lights after an artery in his leg was severed.

Mo Ahmed and William Elvin outside Sunshine House in Wigan(Image: Local Democracy Reporting Service)

The 52-year-old now lives in Scholes after recovering from a needle-related injury more than a year ago. Despite living in Wigan for much of his life, he still has the Bristol accent from his time in the South West.

His optimistic attitude towards life is in stark contrast to how he was just two years ago, when he lived on the streets of Wigan, taking refuge in shop doors. His escape was by using hard drugs like heroin.

“I helped people, the wrong people,” Will said, recounting the story of how he came to the streets. “The Council received complaints from people coming in and out of my house.

wigan town center(Image: KBP)

“They kept warning me and I ended up being evicted, which left me on the street for months. It was horrible (on the streets).

“You feel like you’re not part of society, people just walk past you and ignore you. Even if people say hello it’s nice, but I didn’t like asking people for money.

“I would just do drugs because that’s all you can do. It was just to get out of it, to get away from being there, from being cold and wet.

“The turning point for me was when I ended up in the hospital, I thought ‘I don’t want to die on the streets’, then my family helped me. They told me I needed to get off the streets, they didn’t like it.

“I saw my mother every day and she has seen the change in me.”

William Elvin, 52, previously homeless, now lives in Scholes, Wigan(Image: Local Democracy Reporting Service)

Will said he received visits from members of The Brick charity when he was on the streets, who found him different accommodation within Wigan. He then managed to secure a place at the council’s specialized accommodation in Scholes, a stone’s throw from the center of town.

It took him a year to get to where he is now, which he described as ‘better for him’ due to his proximity to his mother and estrangement from the drug dealers who exploited him. Both Will and Mo have support workers to help them keep up with daily tasks, such as attending medical appointments or paying bills.

Will describes his support worker as “a devil on the shoulder” who keeps him in check. He now looks to the future, a major transformation from the man who would be doing drugs just to get through the day.

Mo Ahmed (left) and Will Elvin, who have turned their lives around after years of living on the streets.(Image: Local Democracy Reporting Service)

“I see myself moving, going back to Bristol,” he said. I was born here but moved to Bristol when my parents went to work.

“I would prefer to be in Bristol. There is simply more to do in Bristol, always activities. Once I move south I would like to get a job. I was overcoming it all when I was on the streets.

“I have changed now, I have more determination now, I want to show my family that I can do this. I have more guts and drive.

“I won’t let people walk all over me now. I had these partners who would borrow money from me and make me run for them.

“I stay away from them now. I was doing drugs, both me and my brother fell that way. I no longer want to make dealers rich. I think for every £10 you would give them, you get to treat yourself. They don’t think about you, they’re thinking about money.”

Ridyard Street in Pemberton, Wigan(Image: Copyright Unknown)

Will now works with We Are With You, a charity that provides confidential support to people experiencing problems with drugs, alcohol or mental health. This is to ensure that she continues on this clean path.

Will’s desire to return south to Bristol is something the council team supports. The accommodation is not pressed for time, so residents can use it to get back on their feet and move on, or stay there for longer if they wish, explained Jo Wilmott, Wigan Council’s director of homes and communities.

Meanwhile, Mo has found a community in Atherton and sees himself there for the longer term, proving the versatility of the hosting service. This is why Wigan Council want to expand the housing stock they have, so they can help more people like Mo and Will.

His plans for 12 new flats in new accommodation blocks at Pemberton and Atherton came as a result of government funding. The government capital grant at the Warwick Road (Atherton) and Ridyard Street (Pemberton) sites is £504,987, the council confirmed.

On top of that, they secure funds to employ resettlement workers amounting to £113,505, bringing the total grant received for these two sites to £618,492.

Now that they’re settled, Mo and Will express a desire to give back to those who helped them. They are in the process of volunteering at The Brick and Mo has even started working with the Canal and River Trust, helping to repair the banks and rebuild the towpaths.

Having both been in dark places in their lives, the men, as Mo says, are following the light, thanks to this opportunity given by the council.



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