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“We should never give up on anybody.” That was the view of Jimmy Carlson, a friend, colleague and inspiring force who was part of the From the Ground Up team until he passed away in January.
As someone who spent nearly a quarter of a century as an alcoholic and rough sleeper, that was important to him. He used to say that if you had met him 20 years ago you’d have thought he was “just another homeless drunk”. But Jimmy Carlson picked himself up and went on to devote his life to creating chances for other homeless people to do the same.
Born in Leeds in 1947, he was undoubtedly a nice guy. But he was much more than that too. In 1997 he started volunteering with Groundswell, a charity set up to help homeless people take more control of their lives and became a crucial part of the team. For the last five years of his life he served as one of its trustees.
He helped establish the Homeless People's Commission, which presented policy recommendations to the House of Lords in 2011 and was involved in setting up The Haven, a club, which provides an alcohol and drug-free environment for those recovering from sub-stance abuse.
Over the past two decades he was a man who fought hard to find himself by fighting for others.
Among the many tributes to Jimmy, Groundswell’s Athol Halle said “Jimmy showed us that with passion and commitment you can achieve wonders – and that the best thing you can do for someone who is homeless is give them the opportunity to make a contribution.”
He went on to be awarded an OBE for services to homeless people in 2012.
When he received the award he was, for once, gobsmacked. When he did finally manage to pick his jaw up off the floor Jimmy said “You would have walked over me in the street 20 years ago and thought I was a lost cause. However I 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 – with the right support they have a lot to offer too.”
Those that knew Jimmy well said he was at his most impressive as an advocate – put a mic in his hand and he knew what to say to open people’s minds, and their hearts as well.
He knew first-hand about the difficulties faced by people whose lives had been affected by homelessness, addiction and mental health issues. And he used that experience to campaign on our behalf. His direct and fearless character made him a natural spokesman. He had an innate ability to connect to others through his empathy - he talked, people listened. When they talked he listened to them.
Gerry Rolfe, Case Worker at Groundswell, said about him “Jimmy was like a beacon to me. If you had a problem you could always talk to him about it. Seeing what Jimmy had achieved and how his past made him who he was made me realise that I could actually use my experience. This will be my sixth year at Groundswell, I’m now a paid worker and that comes from having advice from people like Jimmy. He’ll be really missed.”
While he was an inspiration to others, he was also an extremely effective campaigner for change. He had a finely tuned bullshit detector, a nose for hypocrisy and the determination and courage to confront it.
We all owe him a debt of gratitude. He is no longer here for us to thank in person so perhaps a fitting tribute to Jimmy would be to go out of your way to help someone you normally wouldn’t. I’m pretty sure he would have loved that idea.
He was one of those rare people whose put his money where his mouth was. He never forgot where he came from, who he was and who it was that he was representing. He was one of us. RIP Jimmy, mate. You will indeed be missed.