Carl volunteers for the Red Cross

Photo credit: Lexi Finnigan / British Red Cross

“If you saw me walking towards you at night you would be scared. The tattoos, the shaved head, the missing teeth. I get that, I understand that. People judge me by the way I look but once they speak to me I can explain. I’ve done a lot of taking in my life and now it’s time to give something back.”

Carl Chant is a 43-year-old ex-heroin addict from Llanelli, near Swansea. After being abused at the age of 12, he ran away from home and after living on the streets spent 13 years on and off in prison for robbery, drug dealing and burglary.

Today he sits at a British Red Cross table outside the Westway Sports Centre in west London – registering and supporting those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire.

A helping hand

“Six of us from the Swansea Red Cross office travelled down on Tuesday night,” he said. “We’ve been helping register people and just listening to their stories – helping them work through what they’ve seen and experienced.

“After I ran away from home at 12 that was school done for me,” Carl says.

“I have no GCSEs or A-Levels but I’ve spoken to people from all walks of life and that’s made me a good listener. And that’s what these people really need now – someone to listen to them.

“Today I’ve started seeing more people who live in blocks of flats next to Grenfell Tower. One gentleman saw a baby thrown out of the tower. Another said the morgue is currently outside his flat so he keeps seeing people brought out in body bags.

“It’s hard not to get emotional when you hear stories like that. But I try and be professional. When I get home later I will probably be a mess.”

Joining the Red Cross

Carl became addicted to heroin after getting out of prison and spent six years hooked on the drug. He got to a point where he knew he had to make a decision about his life and whether he wanted to live or die.

With sheer strength of will he cleaned up and applied for a volunteer job at Choose Life charity in Llanelli.

It was there he met Red Cross workers and found out more about their founding principles of humanity and neutrality.

“That really appealed to me,” says Carl. “For the first time in my life there was a group of people who weren’t judging me.”

Despite his lack of qualifications, he went on to get a job with the Red Cross working as a tenancy support worker and for the first time in his life he now has a council flat he can call his own.

“I’ve moved around my entire life so it’s nice to be in one place. I put everything into my work – that’s what gives me focus and it’s my be all and end all.

“I’m so happy paying my bills – doing it all on my own and being able to work and help people. I want to show everyone how I’ve changed my life around.”

Inked on his knuckles are the letters LOVE and winding across his temple is a tattoo of a travelling star.

“That’s what I am,” he says. “A travelling star – I like to think I shine a light for people who are lost. I’ve seen it all – the lows and the highs. And I think I prove it is possible to turn your life around and help others.”

Looking to the future

Carl says he’s lonely at the weekends with no friends, family or social life to speak of. “I don’t trust people easily and it’s difficult socialising around people who are going out and drinking. But I set myself life goals and maybe the next step is to put roots down and make friends and start letting people in.”

Until that point, Carl has his work with the Red Cross in which his life skills are invaluable and he can express himself without fear of judgement.

And the survivors of Grenfell have someone who will listen to their fears, hold their hand and help them get the support they need.

This blog was written by Lexi Finnigan, British Red Cross. 

This blog was updated on 11 August and 15 September 2017