Working with homeless people is how I found my calling, says the deputy CEO of Sheffield youth homeless charity, Roundabout, Tracey Jackson.
The teenage boy had been plucked from his home and everything familiar to him and sent hundreds of miles away. A crumpled family photo was the only tangible link he had with his past…
And it became an important link between him and me too, when I made copies of that special photo so he could always have it with him.
I was in my early 20s and this was my first role as a key worker in Rotherham. It was unbelievable to me to see this young person alone in the world, dropped into a completely new place and culture, trying to find his feet.
We made a connection over that photo and I worked with him for nine months to help him to make friends and get into education. He was eventually referred to Sheffield and we lost touch.
Then one day, I was sitting in a cafe in the city centre and there was a bang on the window. He came rushing in and threw his arms around me, calling me “my angel!” I was delighted to see him so happy and even more thrilled to find out he had settled down and become a father.
Experiences like this one made me realise this type of work was my calling. But it took me a while to get there.
I started my career late, first thinking I’d become a teacher, then a hairdresser, before moving to work in Athens for a couple of years.
I had my children aged 25 and 27 and somewhere in-between realised I wanted to do something meaningful with my life.
I completed a social care course and a social policy degree, during which I undertook a placement at Rotherham’s Rush House on a project for young homeless people. I arrived not knowing what to expect and loved it from the offset.
There was a big heroin problem at the time with lots of people in drugs treatment programmes, but amidst the chaos and negative behaviour there seemed to be an energy about the young people.
I felt a huge sense of hope getting to know them and help them affect change. I didn’t want the placement to end, so I asked to come back and volunteer.
A large part of my enjoyment was the mentoring and tutelage I received under Rush House’s manager Jim Stevens, an amazing man who taught me so much. In my current senior management role I often find myself wondering “what would Jim do?” He really formed my values and vocation of working with homeless people.
I eventually gained a permanent role at Rush House and wrote an accredited life skills training programme to advise young people on how to look after themselves.
It’s heartwarming to see what some of the young people accomplish. I’ve seen one go to university to study law, another train to become a plasterer and one even go to jockey school!
The time eventually came to move on and I began a management role with the homeless charity Shelter in 2001. I felt bereft not working directly with young people, but realised I had to make a difference on a different level.
The role required me to devise and implement a Peer Education programme: a preventative approach to youth homelessness emphasising the importance of leaving home in a planned way.
Formerly homeless young people are trained to deliver sessions in schools and colleges, which is a creative way of flipping peer education on its head by enabling those attending the sessions to learn from others who have had a direct experience with the issue.
I remained with Shelter for 10 years before Ben Keegan, the CEO of Sheffield’s youth homeless charity Roundabout, heard me speak about Peer Education at a conference.
I had no desire to leave Shelter, but I researched Roundabout and it felt like the right path to take – a way of coming back to my roots in local charity work. Roundabout provides shelter, support and life skills to young people aged 16-24 who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I’ve been with Roundabout for nine years and we have secured funding to develop and implement our own Peer Education programme in South Yorkshire, which is delivered to more than 600 young people every year. We’re always in need of volunteers and donors at Roundabout and we’d love to hear from anyone who may be able to help.