From living in his car, to cooking for people sleeping on the streets, to studying housing at university – meet Mark

From sleeping in his car to studying housing at university – this is Mark’s story

From living in his car, to cooking for people sleeping on the streets, to studying housing at university – meet Mark

Mark went from sleeping in his car to studying homelessness at university

Mark Eaton-Lees wrapped a duvet around himself in the back of his car, trying to keep out the midwinter chill, but he couldn’t get warm.

When his rented accommodation fell through last-minute, Mark was left with nowhere to go and ended up sleeping on the back seat of his Volkswagen Polo for 40 freezing nights.

“Panic was setting in,” said the former recruitment worker. “When I got to the car park, I was in tears. Where was the nearest toilet? Where do I shower? Where do I eat?”

After experiencing homelessness first-hand, Mark was determined to help others and started cooking for people living on the streets. He’s now studying homelessness at Swansea University.

Mark was staying long-term at a B&B in Blackpool over winter 2014 while working as Transport Manager for a logistics company in North West England.

As a keen diver, he dreamed of setting up his own scuba diving centre in Devon and decided to hand in his notice to pursue his ambition.

After travelling to Devon by coach at weekends to research accommodation, Mark managed to find a room to rent in Paignton and paid a deposit.

The landlord agreed he could move in the New Year, after working his month-long notice period and further saving towards starting his business.

“Little did I know, this was the start of my line of dominoes falling over, pushing me into hidden homelessness,” said Mark, who bought a cheap car to help with the move.

“I checked into a hotel at Exeter Airport over Christmas for a break before my new life started. I always remember that because I had a Mars Bar for my dinner on Christmas Day.”

He added: “I still can’t explain it, but something was bugging me. Every time I looked out of the window and saw my car, I thought to myself: ‘I’ll be sleeping in that soon.’

“The day I checked out, I had a shower and thought: ‘This could be my last one for a while.’ It was an eerie feeling.”

After packing up, Mark’s car wouldn’t start and he had to fork out for a new battery. One breakdown callout later and he was on his way to his new accommodation.

“I arrived just after midday,” he recalled. “I knocked on the door and was greeted with: ‘Ah, hello.’ I knew it wasn’t good.

“They told me I was the only person who’d taken a room, so they’d decided to go away themselves until summer. They gave me my money back and shut the door.

“I had so many emotions going through me. The main one was: ‘I’ve messed up here.’ I just didn’t know what to do. It was like being punched in the stomach.”

He spent the rest of the day driving around the local area, looking for other accommodation options, but couldn’t find any.

“I didn’t want to call my parents in the Midlands,” he explained.” “My pride wouldn’t let me. I didn’t want to burn through the few savings I had with more hotels, so I had to think fast.”

Mark remembered a free restaurant car park in Exeter and headed there. He struggled to start his car again and the breakdown service told him he needed a new starter motor.

Mark remembered a free restaurant car park in Exeter

Mark remembered a free restaurant car park in Exeter

“Panic was setting in now,” he recalled. “Where do I go? What do I do? When I got to the car park, I was in tears. Where was the nearest toilet? Where do I shower? Where do I eat?

“All these things were going through my head. Then I realised, a few feet away, people in the restaurant were having fun – maybe celebrating birthdays or anniversaries with loved ones.

“There I was, alone, 6ft tall, trying to get comfortable on the back seat of a small VW Polo. And that’s where I stayed for the next 40 nights.”

Cold and hungry, Mark walked to a supermarket and bought a duvet and pillow. He’d thought people wouldn’t notice him in the car park, but soon realised it was busier than he’d expected.

“I couldn’t let anyone catch me sleeping in the car,” he said. “The embarrassment would have been overwhelming.”

Mark got up at 6am and walked to Exeter Services so he could shower. He went to the job centre, but could not find work. He walked miles during the day, hoping it would help him sleep.

“After a month of walking the streets from sunrise to sunset, I knew I couldn’t keep doing this,” he said. “I was living off discounted food from Tesco and a cup of tea a day.”

He was looking for work as an HGV driver, thinking he’d be able to sleep in the truck. He couldn’t apply for office work, as he didn’t have suitable clothes or any way to wash his belongings.

“I started to feel a lot of pain,” he recalled. “My legs were constantly hurting and it felt like the inside of my bones were freezing. It was still January and I was in trouble.

“The penultimate night, I was scared as I’ve never felt before. I got to the car at my usual time, 9.30pm, and again, I was cold.

“I climbed into the back and got under my duvet. I felt this incredible warm feeling all over my body – it was surreal. I drifted off and had the best night’s sleep I’d had in a very long time.

“But the next morning, I struggled to wake up. I couldn’t think. I had huge brain fog and I was petrified.”

Mark managed to get to the library and after researching his symptoms, believes he had hypothermia.

“Looking at that library computer screen, I knew my time was up,” he recalled. “I had to make the phone call I’d been dreading: ‘Hi mum, I’ve messed up…’

Mark’s parents suggested he returned to Wolverhampton and they paid for his train ticket. He spent the next three months living in his brother’s spare room while he got back on his feet.

During that time, Mark met his partner and they started talking about moving to Devon. The pair managed to find work and accommodation to rent. Her son moved in with them.

Mark said he felt “incredibly lucky” to find a social home after being told 150 other people had viewed it that weekend. They were given a £100 voucher to help decorate the bare floors and walls.

As they settled in, Mark was keen to get involved with local homelessness charities. He started collecting donations, before helping out with cooking – at one point making 100 meals a week.

Mark started cooking for people who were living on the streets

Mark started cooking for people who were living on the streets

Mark was working as a long-distance courier driver when he met a young man in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral.

“He was no more than 20,” said Mark. “He looked cold, tired and terrified. He had a cardboard sign saying: ‘Please help. I’m homeless. But more than food or money, I want a job.’

“I felt heartbroken. I brought him coffee and a sandwich and he told me his story. We chatted for an hour and that hour changed my life.

“I went home and told my partner about what had happened. I had so many questions about why homelessness happens. Can it end? The questions came flooding out of me.”

Last year, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published an evidence review about “hidden” homelessness in the UK, highlighting some of the main data gaps.

Mark’s partner suggested he should go to university to study housing and homelessness. He passed an online 12-month foundation degree and was accepted at Swansea University.

Mark on stage giving a talk

Mark on stage giving a talk

The 46-year-old is in his second year of Criminology and Social Policy and is planning to complete a master’s degree and PhD. He also has a research interest in autism, following a family member’s diagnosis.

“I’m older than a lot of the lecturers,” he laughed. “They’re amazing though and always have time for me. They know I’m passionate about my need for knowledge about youth homelessness.

“Getting a PhD would be full circle for me. To go from being homeless, living in my car, to being an expert in housing and homelessness. That’s what drives me.”

Last summer, Mark volunteered at the Homeless World Cup in Sacramento, California, which he described as “life-changing”.

Mark at the Homeless World Cup

Mark at the Homeless World Cup

He added: “It truly was a privilege to be there with them and see how football can change lives and bring people together. People become lifelong friends. I still speak to some of the players now.”

A lecturer told Mark about Peer Research jobs with Shelter Cymru and last year, he went to the People & Homes Conference, before starting his role in October.

“It has been awesome,” he said. “We’re doing some really good projects and it truly is so exciting. Seeing my name in the acknowledgements section on a report brought tears to my eyes.”

Mark has weekly catch-ups with Peer Research Support Officer Lauren Caley, and monthly video calls with the whole team, as well as access to training.

“The team I work with are friendly and welcoming,” he said. “The training has helped me immensely with my role and my university studies.”

Mark has also been involved with Shelter Cymru’s Take Notice project, contributing to an advice chat bot and taking part in an interview panel.

Mark at a Peer Research training day

Mark at a Peer Research training day

Shelter Cymru Peer Researchers have lived experience of housing insecurity. They use this experience, with their other skills, to inform our fight for home through data and research.

Lauren said: “From my first meeting with Mark, he impressed me with his insights and instinctive understanding of what good quality, trauma-informed research into housing issues should look like.

“His personal experiences have fuelled his ambition to campaign for change and are part of what makes him such a fantastic Peer Researcher.”

She added: “The Shelter Cymru Peer Researchers each have different experiences of homelessness or housing insecurity and bring these varying perspectives and deep empathy to all of our work.

“Mark and the team took the training on board effectively and it’s been wonderful to see them contribute to research discussions both within Shelter Cymru and with our partners. They are a credit to themselves as well as the organisation and I’m so proud to work with them all.”

If you’re interested in Peer Research, contact Lauren by emailing [email protected]

8 May 2024

By Liz Day