Feeling rock bottom is standing atop a viaduct, your body shaking with fear, looking down at the abyss – and with just one thought.
“I was terrified, I was ashamed, and I was embarrassed of being homeless,” recalled Colin, of that seminal moment in Halifax almost five years ago.
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“Basically, I wanted to end it, I’d had enough. I got to the top of the viaduct, looked down, and I said ‘no, no Colin, if it don’t work you’re going to be very, very poorly, and it’s going to hurt’.”
Colin, a man in his 50s, describes the moment as his epiphany.
Rotary took the time to come out and see me, to listen to someone who had hit rock bottom, and we took it up from there.”
This was the juncture in his life where he had to turn things round. But he didn’t reach out for religion, instead he turned to Rotary.
Colin moved on to establish an independent life and serve as an ambassador for the project Rucksacks 4 Homeless, run by Sowerby Bridge Rotary in West Yorkshire.
The project is now in its fifth year with more than 250 rucksacks distributed to the homeless in the Calderdale district around Halifax. These are distributed through a number of homeless support organisations who can identify the legitimate homeless.
Carrying Rotary and Rucksacks 4 Homeless logos, each rucksack contains a warm sleeping bag, bivvy bag, a foil-backed sleeping mat, a lined beanie hat, scarf, thick insulated gloves, two pairs of long, warm socks, and a wind-up torch.
There is also a hygiene clip box containing a face cloth, liquid soap, shampoo, hand sanitiser, comb, deodorant, lip salve, toothbrush and toothpaste, plus face masks to wear during Covid.
Rotary also provides a labelled flask, which can be taken to several coffee shops in Halifax, which off er free refills to the homeless of hot or cold drinks.
For Colin, the road to despair and homelessness, happened so quickly.
Watch Colin’s film for Sowerby Bridge Rotary Club.
The former welder was in a relationship, had a daughter in her twenties, and his partner had just given birth to a baby girl.
He recalled: “When my partner left me, we were both working. We had been together for three years.
“We’d just had the baby, my dad had just died after fighting cancer for six years and things just snowballed. That were eight years ago.”
Alcohol was the accelerant. He had lost his job, his family, his home and, by his own admission, Colin was not a nice person to be around, then.
“The worst part of being homeless is you do it yourself. I lost my family myself, my friends, and you can only stay with people for so long before you start getting under their feet.
“I was drinking quite heavily. I wasn’t talking to people, I was shouting at people.
“Basically, I became homeless, a rough sleeper through debts, addiction to alcohol, broken relationships, and depression.
“I stopped caring. I didn’t know what to do. All I wanted was keep myself to myself. I suppose I was a bit ashamed. I don’t blame anybody but myself.
“I just got it wrong. I got it wrong because I didn’t have the strength to cope at the time. That was it, I lost everything, so I ended up rough sleeping, even sleeping in a cave.”
That moment at the viaduct was the turning point. Colin started to cut down on the drinking, slowly got back on his feet when he met Dave Fawcett, the chief executive of Happydays, a charity which works with the homeless in West Yorkshire.
“After what happened, I held my hands up, I went to get help from homeless organisations, and decided to give something back.”
Colin had heard of a rucksack project for the homeless in Bristol and wanted to replicate that in Halifax.
“I didn’t have a rucksack when I was homeless,” recalled Colin. “I just had a big Parker jacket.”
So, Colin toured charity shops in the town to collect items for the rucksacks which he or Happydays distributed.
The idea snowballed when he was introduced to Hazel Brindle, who was then President of Sowerby Bridge Rotary.
Colin added: “Rotary took the time to come out and see me, to listen to someone who had hit rock bottom, and we took it up from there.”
For Hazel, the rucksack project hit a nerve. Hazel worked on a trust programme which dealt with vulnerable young people, 95% of whom were homeless, had a drug addiction or been convicted of criminal offences.
“It really touched my heart to see these young people, who came to us with no self-confidence, but who taught me more about life than I ever knew,” she recalled.
“As club president, I wanted to do something to help the homeless.
“When I met Dave Fawcett from Happydays, he mentioned that Colin had been doing something on his own collecting rucksacks from various charity shops and buying hygiene products out of his own pocket.
“Dave said it would give Colin a purpose if we joined forces.”
So, the project began. Initially, some of the homeless would take the rucksacks and sell them to buy drugs or alcohol.
Now the process has been refined, with Colin advising and being at the heart of the initiative.
To give Rucksacks 4 Homeless a professional look, Rotarian Rupert Cooke, who is a graphic designer, came up with the project branding.
The logo design is based on the Paul Weller song ‘Broken Stones’, which has lyrics about trying to find your way home. He has also made a series of short films to promote the project.
Each of the filled rucksacks costs about £85 which is funded by donations to Sowerby Bridge Rotary.
They have recently been left an £8,000 legacy to help with that work.
“We work with Happydays and SmartMove, which are two of the homeless organisations in the area,” added Hazel.
“Happydays distribute them because they know the support workers in the area. Colin has a supply of them too as he often gets calls from people wanting rucksacks. Colin knows these people and knows they are going to the right place.”
Sowerby Bridge would love to expand the project wider across Yorkshire to Bradford, Kirklees and Leeds, but that would require further funding or partners who want to expand this project.
John Needell, who is Colin’s long-time mentor and friend, talked about turning the project national.
Prior to Covid, he and Colin had discussions with an agri-chemicals company and a homeless charity in Manchester interested in funding and supporting a project just across the Pennines.
“We would provide the rucksacks, the business would help with the fund-raising, and we would work with the homeless charity in Manchester to distribute the rucksacks to the right people” explained John.
The impact is impressive, but the rucksacks are a sticking plaster. They create a bridge and temporary solution which enables the homeless to get the longer term help they need.
Colin added: “I have had people come up to me and say this rucksack saved my life, it has helped me so much and helped me to keep going for a few weeks until I can find a property and support.”
Each of the filled rucksacks costs about £85 which is funded by donations to Sowerby Bridge Rotary.”
As for Colin, he found a settled place to live, and was visited regularly by his 28-year-old daughter. He admitted he missed seeing his other daughter, whose mother has moved on.
Colin dreamt one day of starting a business, buying and selling Vespa scooters which he had repaired.
“That morning, five years ago, I turned my life round and did something about it to live independently.
“All my bills are paid. I’m not in debt. I have met so many nice and genuine people, not people who want to take things off me. People that welcome me.
“I know if I had not gone on that journey, I would not have met all these lovely people.”
Colin died peacefully on May 16th after a short illness. His family asked for the article to be published as a tribute to his life and work.
If you would like to know more visit the Happy Days UK website.