A life reclaimed – Resident John’s Big Issue interview

December 23, 2011

Just six months ago John Blair was homeless, jobless and had nothing to look forward to. But now, with help from Preston-based charity Recycling Lives, he’s back on his feet and about to start full time employment. Ciara Leeming reports

When John Blair arrived for an assessment with Recycling Lives he was not in a good state. Gaunt after several months of living on the streets, he had not eaten in three days. His beard was long and matted, his clothes were filthy and he was understandably very down about his predicament. “Usually there’s a few days delay while we conduct the necessary checks, but I couldn’t let John go back out and sleep rough in his state,” recalls Neil Flanagan, development manager of the Preston based charity. “We got everything done extra quickly, offered him a place, and got him showered and fed. That was in July and since then he’s been a model resident.” Blair, 31, is lucky to have found Recycling Lives when he did. A row led to him being kicked out of his mum’s home in May, and embarrassment prevented him from asking friends to lend him a sofa or a bit of floor. His time on the streets was dark and lonely but he avoided getting sucked into a lifestyle of drink or drugs.

It was Preston City Council’s housing department that told him about Recycling Lives, an unusual mix of commerical enterprise, supported housing and training opportunities close to the city centre. Six months on, Blair is in good health and preparing to move on – he starts a full-time job in January. He is one of 20 Recycling Lives graduates to have left on a similar high since the charity was set up three years ago. He says: “I couldn’t have done this without the support I got at this place. Being homeless was horrible – I was sleeping under bridges because I just wanted to be on my own, but I was miserable. Since I arrived I’ve done work placements and gained qualifications – I’ve done lots of got my forklift licence and my CSCS card, which you need to work on a building site. “In the new year I start a job with a company which does refurbishments of supermarkets, and I’ve signed up to enable me to work 80 hour weeks… I really want to get back on my feet and live a normal life.” Recycling Lives was born when Steve Jackson, former Preston North End chief executive and entrepeneur, decided to use some of the fortune from his scrap metal business for social good. A pilot project, set up with £2 million of his own money, gave homeless men somewhere to stay while training them for work. This turned into a fully functioning charity, with support from public sector partners including Preston City Council, and corporates such as BAE Systems. Residents stay in en-suite rooms sharing a kitchen and living space, games room and gym. Their housing benefit pays the rent and they are supported to apply for jobseekers allowance. There are 10 places and stays range from six weeks to over a year, depending on the individual and his needs.

Recycling Lives takes referrals from agencies but – crucially – men can also self-refer. The charity accepts people from any area as long as they meet the criteria, which includes being drink and drug free. Charity manager Mark Channing says: “We really want to get the message out to homeless men over the age of 18 that they can refer themselves to our service if they think this kind of programme is for them. They can do this using a computer and within 72 hours they can have an answer. “It is very important though that they have been off drink and drugs – including methadone or other scripts – for 12 months. This is because the work placements are hard work and involve machinery, but it is also about showing us that they have the right attitude. This is not for everyone but those who are at the right point in their lives will gain practical education, experience and a work ethic. A lot of different organisations work with them while they are here, and they will get help applying for jobs and with interview technique. We can’t guarantee that people will leave with a job but a number of former residents have.”

Vist the European Social Fund website