In another life I should be at the bottom of the Thames right now. Or perhaps I might have found my way back to Poland by myself, but even then I would still be the same drunk Jerzy.
I came to London for a holiday at first, to visit my son who was working here. I liked the place and there was so much work available that I decided to stay, living in a squat in an industrial area.
Most of the time, I was either drunk or getting ready for my next drink. I drifted from one day to the next, not thinking about settling or trying to make things better. I had occasional moments of sobriety when I realised that I should just go home. But then I would get drunk again. I did nothing to stop my degradation.
When I lost my room at the squat, I took to sleeping rough and became deeply rooted in street life. That was where I met my son again, who had been looking for me. It was a short and very unpleasant meeting.
I visited The Broadway Centre, where I first met the people from Barka. Some men were wary of them, saying Barka worked with the authorities, which has certain connotations for Polish people who remember Communism. Even so, I felt immediately that I could trust one of their Leaders, Marek. Like me, he had experienced destitution too. That made him credible for me.
Barka took me back to Poland soon after, but it is not Barka’s style to send someone home and consider the job finished. I was still drinking and not thinking properly for myself. It took a while but eventually I realised that I could only turn my life around if I forget about work, family, everything else, until I had first mended myself.
On 11th November 2007 I drank my last four beers during a festival in Poznań. On that day I started my regeneration. It took some time, but as I got my life together, the Barka community gradually gave me greater trust and responsibility. I now run a social enterprise in Poland, a lakeside recreational settlement. I am also one of Barka’s Leaders – we call ourselves Recycled Citizens, currently on my sixth cycle in London. Like Marek, who helped me, I work directly with homeless Polish people. Just as I saw something of myself in Marek, I hope some of these men see something of themselves in me. I help them to see how things might be.
On 11th November, three years after my last drink, I attended a memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields. They read many names of people who had died homeless. I am thankful my name never appeared on such a list.
Story by Martin Reed
Jerzy ‘Marynarz’ Barka UK Leader photo by Adrian Wykrota (www.adrianwykrota.com)