My Spanish Story: ‘I was homeless for two years but it felt like a lifetime’

What's it like to live homeless on the streets? Andrew Craig has been there and is now inspiring others to get back on their feet.

My Spanish Story: 'I was homeless for two years but it felt like a lifetime'
Andrew Craig shares his story of how he got himself back on his feet. Photo: Andrew Craig

Leah Pattem’s recent article about Madrid’s anti-homeless architecture has caused quite a stir.

We heard claims that “homelessness is a choice”, that “most homeless people have substance abuse problems”, and that “shelters are safer than the streets”. But there was one person who came forward speaking of his own experiences, and it’s not always as expected.

Here’s Andrew’s story:

“My name’s Andrew Craig. I’m a Yorkshire lad, 36 years old. I suppose my story starts at the age of five when I was taken into care because both of my parents were ill – my Dad had MS and suffered various other difficulties as a result of having been in the army, and my mother had a heart condition and epilepsy.

By the age of 13, I’d lost both of my parents and was an orphan. For a couple of years, I was put into various foster homes, and due to this, school was a struggle. I was eventually placed in a children’s home, but there was abuse of various kinds and so I’d run away quite often and slept rough.

At 16, I started an apprenticeship with the army. I got my A-levels and an engineering degree, and toured Iraq and Afghanistan. After 12 years, I’d developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which the army didn’t seem to acknowledge, perhaps because it hadn’t manifested itself too badly at that point. PTSD did ultimately leave me poorly equipped to deal with a work accident, which I can imagine other people wouldn’t have struggled with as much. At the same time, unfortunately, the breakup of a relationship I was in left me without a place to live, and that’s when I ended up homeless for the first time.

I went to Manchester with the plan to sleep on the city streets, thinking that it would be safer because of the city’s more complex architecture (meaning more places to shelter), and possibly more access to help, but I was naïve. I stayed in a hostel for one night, but it was very scary. It was noisy throughout the night, and the lock on my door didn’t work. The sheets on the bed were clean, but I could smell the mattress really badly, so I slept on the floor in my sleeping bag.

I didn’t feel safe: there were a lot of people who suffered substance abuse and had serious behavioural issues. There were cameras but only one warden, who I never saw. I saw fights, drug taking and even drug dealing.

In the morning, I got a knock on my door, “Up! Out!” they shouted. I remember at the time thinking that prison would be friendly, safer and cleaner, but then I wouldn’t know who my neighbours were going to be. Even though I’m sure that other homeless shelters couldn’t possibly be this bad, that night was enough for me to never want to go back.

I reached out to a few friends, but most of them weren’t keen to give me the help I really needed, and so I continued sleeping rough on the streets of Manchester. I was urinated on a few times while sleeping and beaten up so badly by a group of thugs that I ended up in hospital. I’d been inside my sleeping bag, so I couldn’t get up and run away.

After that, I decided to leave Manchester and I moved to Buxton – it’s a beautiful spa town, and that’s where I met a good friend of mine, Dave, who took me under his wing. He had also been in the army and was living rough too, so we both lived in the woods together. It was tough but much easier than living in Manchester.

After around a year and a half of sleeping in the woods, someone set fire to Dave’s sleeping bag while he was inside it. He was taken to hospital and underwent numerous operations to repair the skin all over his legs where the plastic had melted to him.

Fortunately for Dave, after coming out of hospital, he was moved into a council flat. The guy who set him on fire did two years in prison and now lives in the same council housing complex as Dave.

This incident made me realise that being homeless was just too dangerous. I managed to get a job while sleeping rough – it was just one day a week but was enough for me to eventually save up a deposit and rent a room. I never begged – I was probably too proud after being in the army, remembering being in my uniform and being a part of something important, but then suddenly finding myself in a position of needing charity. I just couldn’t do it – I couldn’t even ask for help.

I’ve now completed a degree in counselling and psychotherapy, and that’s when I met a Spanish lady who I fell head over heals for. We moved to Spain together, end even though it didn’t work out, she still feels like my family. And I love Spain – the people, the country, the weather. I now live between the UK and Spain, spending around half the year here in Madrid.

I’m currently setting up my own counselling practise. My main motivation is helping people get off the streets. Having been there myself, I know it’s possible, even when it doesn’t seem like there’s a way out.

Once upon a time, I thought that homeless people were alcoholics or drug addicts, but I was never either of those things. Most people were quite hostile towards me when I was homeless – they and my ‘friends’ just didn’t seem to want to know. However, every now and then, someone stopped to talk to me. Just 15 minutes of conversation with someone made me feel like I was part of the human race, and that I hadn’t fallen through the cracks and completely disappeared. There were times when I wanted to end it all, but just those conversations gave me a spark of hope and kept me going through my hardest moments on the streets.

I was homeless for two years, but it felt like a lifetime, and the trauma and fear of being homeless will never leave me. Even now, I think I should swap my car for a van and buy a good sleeping bag, so that if I end up homeless again, I still have somewhere to sleep.

I’m hoping to move to Spain full time one day and work with homeless people here, but I don’t know if Brexit will affect this. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see.”

A bench with armrests to deter homeless people sleeping. Photo by Leah Pattem.

We often talk about the good things that bring us to Spain, but we don’t often talk about the good things that we bring to Spain. In Andrew Craig’s case, love brought him here, but what he brings with him is a plan to help vulnerable expats, and there are many.

After the financial crisis, many British expats suddenly found themselves without a home. The catalyst was often the loss of work, therefore loss of income and, ultimately, the loss of a rented property. Thousands of homeowners too became victims of unlicensed housing that had been illegally built during the pre-crisis boom. They watched their houses razed to the ground – life savings gone.

Seeking help can be hard for many reasons, including not being able to speak the local language. When the government doesn’t help, charities often step in, but, as Andrew found, offering just food and shelter does something, but what so many need is inspiration, and that’s where Homeless Entrepreneurs comes in.

Barcelona-based social enterprise, Homeless Entrepreneurs works with homeless people at every stage of their recovery: from that initial 15-minute conversation to training, finding a home and setting up a business.

Homeless Entrepreneurs is a non-religious organisation, and purposely avoids any kind of short-term fixes. Those who make a full recovery with them then have the opportunity to help others get off the streets too.

“One of my biggest barriers when I was homeless was confidence and self-worth, so to have someone who believes in you and encourages you to get where you want to be is invaluable”, said Andrew.

A 15-minute conversation gives someone a voice. It empowers them and also enlightens us. Nothing is going to change overnight, but some of us are working on it – and you can too.

Learn more about the life-changing work of Barcelona’s Homeless Entrepreneurs here.

IN PICS: Madrid's hostile anti-homeless architecture that you see everyday but don't even notice


Cañada Real: Madrid’s shantytown where residents are living without electricity

On October 2nd, a power outage left around 1,000 houses in a Madrid neighbourhood without electricity, writes Leah Pattem of Madrid No Frills.

Cañada Real: Madrid's shantytown where residents are living without electricity
Temporary, self-built shelters in the Cañada. Photo: Madrid No Frills

Almost 60 days later, the lines have still not been repaired – a situation that seems hard to believe, except for the fact that this neighbourhood is Sector 6 of the Cañada Real in Madrid.

The Cañada Real © @vallecasva

The Cañada Real is an unofficial, 16km-long linear settlement whose origins date back more than half a century. Residents have been arriving to this ancient cattle trail for generations, building makeshift homes and raising families. This winding settlement, which bends southbound around the outskirts of the city (parallel to the M-50 motorway) is a place almost every madrileño knows exists, but few know the reality.

Also known as ‘the Unpaved Cañada’, it remains Madrid’s forgotten neighbourhood and is a blind spot in the council’s responsibilities to its almost 3,000 residents. Their life expectancy is years lower than their paved neighbours in the city, where, two weeks ago, the residents marched for their rights. Signs read: “Electricity is not a luxury, it’s a right”, “I’m sick of surviving, I just want to live”, and “Who told you that there was marihuana in my house?”

Protest at Cibeles on Nov 17 © #404 Comunicación Popular

The last sign is the discriminative narrative that haunts Sector 6 residents, because their neighbourhood is where the biggest drug dealing area in Western Europe is located. Over 12,000 doses are sold a day here, yet only 180 residents are registered drugs users, most of whom receive no help and sleep in tents on the side of the unpaved road.

The narrative run by many newspapers – national and international – is that a growing number of cannabis farms caused a surge in the electricity supply to Sector 6, causing the outage. Yet the electricity supply to the city of Madrid runs without a glitch when thousands of Christmas lights around the city are switch on every night. The stigma associated with the Cañada is unrelenting thanks to media bias, but it’s wrong.

Of the 3,000 people who live in Sector 6 of the Cañada Real, 1,211 of them a children. For almost two months, they have been doing their homework in candlelight, and those who are quarantined can’t access computers or internet.

Parents can’t cook for their families let alone store fresh food, and their only way of keeping warm is by burning rubbish outside. Clothes are washed by hand over a laundry grill – something the modern world long left behind – and people bath in cold water whenever they can bear it.

A view from the Cañada towards Rivas. Photo: Madrid No Frills

Aside from the ongoing and worsening physical traumas Sector 6 residents are experiencing, their mental health is deteriorating, for the children especially. Two weeks ago, the Oficina del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas asked some Sector 6 children to draw or write how they felt about the loss of electricity to their neighbourhood.

Drawing of a star-lit sky and the sad family of Taisgir, a five-year-old boy living in Sector 6 of the Cañada. Because there is no light in the
Cañada at night, the stars in the sky are more visible.




“Electricity is a right, not a privilege.“

I need electricity to study, to listen, to heat. We are so cold.

Nizar is five years old.


“We want light”

“Hello, I’m called Malak El Harrak El Assouad, I’m 7 years old and I live in the Cañada Real Galiana at 65F. Please let us have light. It’s so cold, breakfast is sad and cold.“


Sector 6 of the Cañada Real is a shanty town and therefore an unofficial neighbourhood in Madrid, yet three years ago, the local government promised the relocation of its long-term residents – a promise that appears to have no deadline.

In all of the Cañada’s history, this is its most brutal moment. The Covid-19 pandemic combined with the economic plummet for those surviving below the poverty line was enough to deal with, but now there is also no electricity for the foreseeable future, nor the fulfilment of the promise to be moved into social housing.

Fatima, 33, grew up in the Cañada Real. Her husband and father built the family home by hand, which her three young children have begun to question more than ever before, asking, “Why can’t we just move?”

The answer that Fatima gives her children when they ask why they can’t just move is simply, “I’m sorry. We can’t”, withholding the explanation that she knows they’ll soon enough learn: discrimination.

Fatima created the Instagram account saying, “All I ask is that you help us raise awareness of the power cut to the Cañada.” Also sign this petition on demanding the return of electricity to Cañada Sector 6 residents.

Please follow Fatima, share this story and sign the petition until the electricity lines are rightfully repaired because in a country that calls itself a modern democracy, electricity is not a privilege, it’s a right.

This article is by Leah Pattem, the founder of Madrid No Frills, an independent Madrid-based platform for under-reported stories from underrepresented communities.

To discover stories that reveal the grittier, real side of Spain's capital, follow her on Facebook and Instagram and support  the Patreon page