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Interview with Jimmy Carlson OBE

1 August 2012

In 2012 Jimmy Carlson, 64, from Islington, north London, was awarded an OBE for his contribution to public services. Mr Carlson served with the Royal Pioneer Corps (which later became part of the Royal Logistic Corps) for five years. When he was discharged in 1973, he became an alcoholic and lived rough on the streets and in hostels until 1996, when he stopped drinking. He joined the charity Groundswell in 1997 which is when he started volunteering to enable homeless people to make the same transition that he did. Jimmy Carlson OBE died in early 2017, aged 69.



How does it feel to be awarded the OBE?

I am so humbled but at the same time so proud to receive this Honour.

Looking back at your life, what would you recommend other people facing difficult situations should do to turn their life around as you have done?

Looking back, most of my adult life I was institutionalised. I went into the army quite young, your life was organised for you. Then I didn’t cope well with civilian life and the drink took over - it was not long before I could not hold down a job. After that I was in and out of prisons, mental hospitals, alcohol detox units and hostels for homeless people.

In between institutions I drifted into the life of homelessness where I could drink when and what I wanted. The only thing I had to think about was where my next drink was coming from. I had no worries about bills or looking after myself.

But I didn’t like the person I had become and after many attempts to get off the drink I finally cracked it with the help of an Alcohol Recovery Project (now Foundation 66).  Then after a few months of being sober - I started to think more clearly and realised that I had not really changed - apart from not drinking. I knew I needed to do more and I wanted to give something back.

I ended up at an event with Groundswell and heard presentations from Slum Dwellers International who are based in India. Their stories were amazing about how they worked together to help themselves out of poverty. Me and my friend had never heard anything like it - so we got ourselves to The Groundswell Forum event in Sheffield where they were running workshops.

The main thing we picked up was “homeless people are not the problem but are part of the solution”. This inspired me and I started volunteering at the Groundswell head office. By the time of the next years Forum I was running my own workshops.

Through volunteering I started to grow in confidence and got my self-esteem back. I felt a part of the community where I live - not just the drunk.

As for other people and turning their life around it is a difficult question as we are all individuals – but for me it was all about volunteering, about being useful, feeling needed and knowing you are making a contribution.

It’s hard to feel good about yourself when you are doing nothing – but as soon as you volunteer – you are both kept busy and rebuilding your self-worth. That’s my advice to others – get busy and volunteer.

And my advice to service providers – you can’t just do things ‘to’ people and let people be ‘service users’ that is not the way out of institutionalisation. You have to give people the opportunity to make a contribution. You just have to.

You are currently working with the charity Groundswell. How does Groundswell improve the quality of life of homeless people and what is your current role?

I’ve been volunteering with Groundswell for 15 years and in that time we have done lots of different things – but all aimed at giving opportunities to homeless people to be the ones to help society tackle homelessness.

If you involve homeless people in running services – you get better services; if you get people involved in policy decisions – you end up with more effective policy. Not only that – but like I say – actually getting involved and being useful is that key thing that helps people be useful, rebuild their independence and turn lives around. You get that buzz from making change happen.

Right now we do a project called Homeless Health Peer Advocacy where volunteers with experience of homelessness help currently homeless people get to their medical appointments. This ensures that people’s health problems get sorted and also helps the NHS save money by reducing missed appointments.

As for my role, I am very passionate about client involvement and I help train staff and clients on how to do this.

We know you have brought homelessness people together with government ministers - what do you think were the lessons learnt by both parties?

Sometimes there is no better way than face to face.  The Minister gets to meet real people and hear their story. They are both on an equal level and talk more freely, listening to a person’s story has more impact than just reading about it. This way both parties gain respect for each other. It cuts out all the red tape.

From your experience, how do you think the public sector should change to reduce the level of homelessness and to help homeless people more effectively?

My message here is never giving up on anyone. You would have walked over me in the street 15 years ago and thought I was a lost cause, just another drunk. However, I picked myself up and turned my life around and I have gone on to make a decent contribution to my community. Rough sleepers you see on the street today can, with the right support,  have a lot to offer too. Never give up on anyone.

Services need to make sure that homeless people are given the chance to do things for themselves - that is the way out of homelessness. Homeless people need to be involved in the care they receive so they can find their independence, not to be mollycoddled. The best thing you can do for someone who is homeless is give them the opportunity to make a contribution and listen to what they are saying.

What are the next projects you have in mind? (Or are just going to put your feet up for the next few weeks and watch the Olympics?!!!)

I helped set up a project called the Homeless People’s Commission with Groundswell. This is a way to get people’s real lived experiences to feed into government policy. We spent a year studying different elements of homelessness and ended up taking our report to eight government departments at the Ministerial Working Group for Tackling Homelessness.

My new plan is try and get local versions of the Homeless People’s Commission together – to get that important lived experience influencing policy at the Local Authority level. This is now where vital public spending decisions are being made and those decisions will be made better by involving the real people that understand their impact.

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