Real life: How a Cambridge charity helped Colin to turn his life around
Becoming homeless in his mid-50s came as a huge blow to Colin Pope, who’d worked hard since he left school. It took a Cambridge charity, and a lot of determination on his part, to turn his life around
It’s 8am on a grey morning. Colin Pope and I are squeezing past the beer barrels inside the back entrance to Millworks in central Cambridge. It’s a 140-seater restaurant and he’s here to clean the floors and make the toilets gleam before the doors open to customers. Just for today, I’m here to help.
Colin is employed full-time by Overstream Clean and Garden, a social enterprise attached to Wintercomfort for the Homeless. Some 15 people work for OCG and four people for its sister business Food 4 Food. All the employees of both enterprises have lived experience of homelessness.
Once the floor is mopped and other jobs done, Colin and I sit down to chat. As he tells his story, many of my preconceptions of homelessness fade away. I begin to feel ashamed. “Don’t worry. I hold up my hand and say I had all the usual prejudices about homelessness too,” says Colin.
“Everyone is individual. People become homeless for all kinds of reasons and come from all walks of life. It can happen fast. You might not realise that some of the people sleeping rough in the city are also working. They come to Wintercomfort for breakfast and a shower and then go off to a job.”
Colin, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday, had never been unemployed before crisis hit. “I was brought up with a strong work ethic. I did all kinds of jobs in factories and shops, fixing things and doing deliveries. I worked all hours to support my family,” he says.
What changed everything was relationship breakdown. “Four years ago, my marriage ended and I left the family home,” he says. Brought up in the fens, he had been living and working in the Lake District, an area he loves. “I got on a train and came to Cambridge with a few things in a bag.”
Lucky isn’t a word you might associate with the story of a life falling apart. But it’s a word that Colin uses again and again. “Luckily I had somewhere to stay when I first arrived in Cambridge – and luckily Cambridge City Council found me a place in a hostel,” he says.
Life in the hostel came as “an eye-opener”, another word that peppers Colin’s account of his recent life. “It wasn’t great but it was a roof over my head,” says Colin. “I felt incredibly grateful that I wasn’t on the streets sleeping in doorways. I began to face up to an entirely new situation.”
Colin had chosen Cambridge because he thought an expanding city would provide plenty of work opportunities. But this wasn’t the case. “I think ageism comes into play when you’re older and don’t have many formal qualifications. And once they know you’re homeless, employers choose someone else,” he says.
In 2017 he walked into Wintercomfort to sign up as a volunteer in the kitchen. It was the first step to re-discovering a purpose in life. “I can’t thank the staff at Wintercomfort enough. They’re a family to me. What I’m doing now, cleaning and gardening, isn’t just a job, it’s a way to pay them back.”
Colin describes himself as soft hearted. Twice he fights back tears. Once when he’s talking about his grown-up children. “They’re doing well and I’m very proud of them.” And again when he mentions one of the private customers of the cleaning business. “Some people are just so lonely.”
But it was his toughness on himself, he now thinks, that led a crisis. “I was working far too hard, sometimes 76 hours a week, to give my family everything. It’s the British stiff upper lip thing. I never asked for help. I just thought that they were my own problems and it was up to me to resolve them,” he says.
“My message to other people is to ask for help. You might not want to talk to friends and family but you can talk to a professional. At one point, sitting with a community worker, I drew a map of my life, a kind of timeline, and I could see how sad it was at some points.”
Friends had always told Colin, who left school at 16, that he was bright. “I never believed them. Then two years ago I began an access course with the Open University. It was difficult at first but I loved it,” he says. “I’ve just started a degree in Environmental Science, something I never dreamed of.”
Homelessness is on the rise. Colin believes there is no magic solution though more affordable housing would be a huge bonus. Wages for many jobs are low and rents high. He has been lucky enough - that word again - to be allocated a flat in a block for the over-55s. “It’s good to have my own place but many younger people are not so fortunate.”
He says that, without Wintercomfort, life in Cambridge for people who have nowhere to call home would be unimaginably bleak. “Wintercomfort offers so much for me and many others. It’s a lifeline.”
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