From speedboats and holidays to a Worthing homeless shelter, with a year living in a car feeding a crack addiction in between.
Gemma Howell, 32, and Dale Davies, 37, have been on a difficult journey but, with the help of homeless charity Turning Tides, the couple are on the right path to turning their life around – and coming out stronger on the other side.
Since being introduced to crack cocaine by an ex-boyfriend at the age of 17, Gemma has struggled with addiction her whole adult life.
Dale was a corporate high flier who travelled the world, owned a speedboat and drove a fancy car. But in 2014, the tragic death of his partner added to a barely controlled cocaine addiction. From there, an addiction to sleeping tablets served as a gateway to heroin.
After meeting two years ago, the couple descended into a life of dependence and rough sleeping.
“Our lives were becoming unmanageable,” said Dale. “We were using drugs on a daily basis and were thinking ‘what kind of existence is this?’ Because that’s what it is, it’s literally just existing.
“We weren’t eating, we lost so much weight, we weren’t washing. We didn’t care about ourselves, the drugs just consumed us.”
Up until a year ago Dale and Gemma had been sofa surfing, sleeping in the back of a shop and even under a shed while they fed their addictions.
Then a friend offered them a Chrysler Grand Voyager – a large eight-seater car – for £250 and they jumped at the chance to have a place of their own.
They tore the seats out and converted it into a place for them, and their dog Missie, to live. Gemma said: “It was free living. It was our base to come back to – it didn’t seem that bad at all.”
But living in the car soon took its toll. Windows were smashed, the battery would seize up and everything inside, including their clothes, was covered in mould and damp.
Gemma and Dale said they continued to pay car tax and insurance, which they viewed as their rent, and never left rubbish or caused a nuisance.
But they still found themselves pushed away from society. They would park on quiet streets, but residents would ask them to move on.
If they parked too near town, drunk people and groups of youths would bang on their windows, throw stones and harass them.
Dale said some people would be nice and offer to help, but sadly much of their interaction with the public left them ever more marginalised.
With no community to turn to, Gemma said, the pair relied on what they knew – drugs.
“You can’t live that life and not be on drugs. Even if you’re not to start with, you end up on them to cope,” she said.
At their lowest point they estimated they were spending £300 a day on drugs: more than £100,000 a year.
An almost incomprehensible amount even for somebody with a job, but with neither of the pair working they said they did what they had to to raise funds.
Ultimately, the lifestyle became too much and towards the end of last year they realised they had to make a change.
A lifeline came through the Guild Care charity shop in Durrington, which had donated sleeping bags and quilt covers to the pair in the past.
Guild Care volunteers pointed them towards a meeting at St Matthew’s Church Hall in Tarring Road, where they met staff from Turning Tides – a service they did not even know existed.
Suddenly, there was a way out of what seemed like an inescapable bind, Gemma said, as they were told ‘you don’t need to live like this’ for the first time in years.
Gemma’s mother let them stay at her house for three days over Christmas while they tried to loosen the stranglehold of their addictions. They have not looked back since.
“Three days took us back to normality,” said Dale. “A warm bed, hot shower, good food – we don’t ever want to go back to how we were living. We decided on Christmas Eve we would go to Turning Tides and we would never use again.”
After Christmas they went to Turning Tides’ St Clare’s Community Hub in Marine Place, Worthing, where they were offered ‘immediate and life-changing help’.
From two years of rough sleeping they found themselves in a sheltered, safe space with hot meals and specialist staff to ease their transition.
Both were placed on methadone programmes to help ween them off their addictions and offered rooms in shelters tailored to specific needs.
Dale stays at the charity’s Manor Road hostel in Worthing, where residents engage in community work and social networking in preparation for rehousing.
Gemma is offered slightly more support at Delaney House in Selden Road, which offers more rehabilitation support.
Both said they receive psychological and practical support in overcoming their addiction and preparing for a new life of sobriety.
The couple praised Turning Tides for adapting to the needs of a couple. Turning Tides homes are typically set up to accommodate individuals, but Gemma is allowed to stay with Dale during the day at Manor Road.
Having never been apart for two years, the couple are essential pillars of support for one another.
They have a set of written rules to follow since going sober. For example, if they argue and one storms away, the other must stay where they are so they do not become separated.
In that way, each acts as a tether for the other, providing a base for them to return.
With decreasing measures of methadone, they plan to be totally drug-free by Christmas this year but hope to remain a part of Turning Tides, offering counselling and support, particularly for couples.
Once completely clean (neither have taken drugs since Christmas Eve), Gemma and Dale have their hearts set on moving in together, getting married and travelling the world, while Dale plots a return to the telecoms industry with his own business.
They hope their story can be one of inspiration to others in a similar situation. Dale urged anybody struggling with homelessness, addiction or problems with their lives to get support before it becomes too late.
“Seek help,” he said. “Go to St Clare’s – the help is immediate.
“They make you feel secure and that you don’t need to be out on the street. The help’s there, but you have got to want it. If you want to help yourself, they will go above and beyond to help you. It really feels like a family; a community where we all help each other. The residents are like a family of odd bods.”