He spent seven years sleeping on the streets, and would take drugs and commit petty crime just so that he could be sent to prison and have a roof over his head.
But after 19 stints in jail, 48-year- old James Giam has found his footing as head chef of social enterprise and eatery Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh. The chain, which opened its first outlet in 2011, now has five stalls - its newest being Soon Huat Dining House which opened in Chinatown Point earlier this month.
After opening franchise outlets in Indonesia in 2014, Soon Huat - believed to be the first social enterprise to set up a franchise abroad - is also looking to expand to China.
The organisation is a member of the Singapore Centre for Social Enterprise, one of 16 that mainly help former offenders. Often, these people fall back on their old ways, with close to three in 10 relapsing within two years of their release.
Around three months ago, Soon Huat joined over 4,700 employers working with the Singapore Corporation of Rehabilitative Enterprises to find jobs for ex-inmates. They make up about 65 per cent of Soon Huat's employees.
In April, Soon Huat's founder Jabez Tan, 42, entrepreneur Philip Wu and artist Barry Yeow started a pilot project - Starfish Home - to get volunteers to write letters as a form of support for inmates due to be released. The trio had found that there was not enough support available for some ex-offenders. Many relapse as they have no shelter, and halfway houses may not suit those who have no religion.
Sometimes, it got so tough outside that I would rather commit crimes intentionally to go to jail. At least I'd have three meals and a roof over my head.
MR JAMES GIAM, recalling the years he spent sleeping on the streets after losing his family, home and job.
Beneficiaries of Starfish Home are employed at one of Soon Huat's outlets upon release. They live together as a community, and their rental costs are paid for by the stalls' profits and sponsorship. Following the six-month pilot, Mr Tan said he hopes to continue this project.
Chef Giam received letters from Mr Tan while in jail and attributes his success thus far to the other man's support.
Mr Giam had started sniffing glue at age 17 before trying marijuana. He later took heroin and was jailed twice for it. Fearing the longer sentence with caning that is meted out to repeat offenders, he turned back to glue as a substitute, but the drugs had put stress on his marriage.
"My wife and I separated around 10 years ago. Because of my involvement with drugs, we often quarrelled at home," he said. Having lost his wife, two children, home and job, he roamed the streets alone.
"Sometimes, it got so tough outside that I would rather commit crimes intentionally to go to jail. At least I'd have three meals and a roof over my head," he said, recalling the cold, rainy nights that left him with no place to hide.
"I felt like I was going crazy; this went on for seven years," he added. During this time, he lost his bank card, identification, wallet and passport, some of which were stolen. He begged and stole food to survive. "I had nothing. I had no thoughts of getting back on my feet."
But around three years ago, he met Mr Tan in a Christian halfway house and started working for him as a dishwasher at Soon Huat. Mr Tan taught him to cook and helped him find a place to live near its Bedok outlet.
"In those three years, I actually went back to jail thrice due to drugs," said Mr Giam. "Each time, he wrote to me when I was in jail and asked if I wanted to come back to work with him.
"I didn't expect him to take me in again," added Mr Giam. It was as though his prayers behind bars were answered. "On the day I was released, it was raining heavily," he said. "When I reached the exit, I saw a familiar figure outside, carrying an umbrella for me. It was Jabez."
Mr Giam has steered clear of alcohol and his former addictions for more than a year - the longest time he has done so. "There are many things we can't change. I have a criminal record, I made mistakes in my life. But if I keep focusing on that, I will never move on in life."