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You might know the face, but do you know the story? Meet Leroy, Merge Cafe’s Front of House icon. He’s smiling proof that courage, perseverance and support leads to long-lasting change.

Leroy’s story is proof that life doesn’t travel in a straight line, that no matter the direction every road is unique, and every step is valuable.

Now in a home of his own Leroy has every reason to be smiling. Following a winding journey through hardship, homelessness, addiction and abuse, Leroy doesn’t hide where he has come from – he takes pride in the work he has done to live each day authentically.

Growing up there was violence and abuse to contend with. Leroy became a father at a young age, and for many years he was stable, trying to work through his demons with a partner who had struggles of her own. When the relationship broke down so did Leroy, turning to drugs.

“I felt sorry for myself all those years. That’s why I became homeless.”

Merge Cafe
Make shift bed for rough sleepers

Chasing oblivion to numb the pain meant Leroy spent a few years living rough.

“I was just chasing the meth. I was just doing what I could just to get that next hit. I would rip of mates and go and do stand-over tactics for some of the guys”

“I was mainly just walking around the streets, just chasing my tail all the time, for a couple of years.”

That sense of hopelessness led into a downward spiral, where drugs became an easy way to stop feeling so much pain, and addiction took over.

“It was my way of trying to block stuff. I had so much going on in my head. Then again, no matter how much you use, that problem is still there. That’s what I was doing. I was just chasing to stop those thoughts.”

After a number of years in hardship it was a long-distance phone call from his brother in Australia that set the wheels in motion to begin again.

“He goes “Bro, think about it, have a real good think, do you want the rest of your life to be like this?”

I just ended up crying and said,

“Bro I need help.”

I had all this emotion. After I finished talking to my brother I turned to my mates and I said, “man I’m out of here” I took the bus to my mum’s.”

Having that lightbulb moment with his brother gave Leroy an opening, one he held on to with both hands, enlisting the help of whānau to get placed in a rehabilitation unit.

“It was real good. Told them my situation and I got drug tested often. There was still that mental side of things that I was still struggling with, like with the breakup and not seeing my kids and that sort of stuff.”

It took a lot of advocating for himself to get the help he needed to move past the drugs, and like many in recovery it wasn’t a linear journey, but Leroy was committed to living a different life.

Leroy secured a temporary roof over his head, at Motel 80 – Lifewise’s emergency housing property. It was here he was assigned a key worker, someone dedicated to helping him find and keep the home he deserved.

“There’s always help out there. It’s just a matter of asking. Don’t be afraid. There’s always someone there to help you.”

The calm energy of Leroy’s Key Worker has been revolutionary in allowing him to build trust, which has had a flow on effect through his daily life, enabling Leroy to trust in himself as well as others, and to be at peace with himself.

Leroy Smith FOH fire warden during drill

She’s seen me go through my dramas. She’s helped me in so many ways. She’s an amazing woman. She was always there and was someone I could talk to. I’d never had that. I had trouble talking to people. For years, even when I was a kid I held things in; with anything wrong I’d just hold it in. That’s probably why I got angry.

“It was just good to have a person that I could talk to, and if I had something going on I could just ring her up. I could just talk about anything. It just felt good. It felt like a weight off my shoulders and that’s what I needed, to just let it go and not hold onto stuff.

Leroy on his Lifewise Key Worker

It took a few years volunteering to gain the confidence to take on employment.  After being offered a job at Merge Café, Leroy only looks forward now.

In his own home there is a sense of security and the ability to exhale at the end of the day.

“There’s time there for me to improve as we go through. That’s what I want. I can just come home and chill and relax. Just a place to chill and relax.”

“I’m a lot different. I don’t overthink as much as I used to now. Don’t have to worry about too much stuff now. There’s still that worry, but not as bad now.”

Leroy’s lived experience has given him compassion and understanding towards others going through similar struggles. He never hesitates to connect with others living rough like he used to.

“We’ve all got our issues and problems. That’s why I get along with the homeless because I was in that same boat.”

“I wish I had asked for help earlier, and then probably I wouldn’t have had to do the stuff… It’s done sort of thing, but all I can do is work on and carry on.”

And Leroy is carrying on, with integrity and mana, on his terms.

Leroy Smith FOH fire warden during drill
Merge Café on K'road In Auckland