Mark Revell lives a 10 minute walk from Oasis Training in the Stonehouse area of Plymouth. He’s lived in the area since about 2013 and currently lives in supported accommodation, a hostel for single homeless adults. In the past few years he’s moved from a shared to a single flat.
Mark has always lived in Plymouth. He was a carpet fitter and floor layer for 25 years, and eventually stopped work because he injured his knees through the job. After that, he worked in demolition for three years, but stopped work after a friend of his died in an accident at work. A few years ago, Mark split up with his long-term partner, and became homeless. The last time he worked was in about 2014, and he is now on Employment Support Allowance (ESA). Mark admits that, in the past, he took on too much. 'That was the problem' he said, 'I sort of had a breakdown [...] obviously it all took it’s toll on me'
When we started speaking to Mark, he said he had been given time to 'pull everything back together'. Part of this process has been his engagement with family, and reconnecting with people who he had lost contact with.
One of the main reasons Mark wanted to learn about computers was to talk to his sister more easily. She lives in Middlesex and they don’t see each other very much. When we first met Mark, they were communicating a lot over the phone, which was proving quite expensive.
His sister, niece and nephew are all on the internet and Mark said: 'I can’t see them, and I can’t talk to them much, unless it’s on the phone'. He was interested in using Skype. He had used it before, but didn’t feel that he knew how any more.
The other reason he wanted to learn was to get better work; something different to his previous 'dusty, dirty work'. Mark says 'It’s alright, I suppose, but it would be nice to have somewhere where you can actually fill a role. That’s the other reason why I’m doing this computer thing, because at the moment I can go up to an agency and get work, but it’s not very good money'. Mark also explains that agency work is always short term, and he wants something more secure.
Mark was aware of services going online: 'computers are the thing now', he said, 'you’ve got to be able to do things online - looking for jobs - the job centres are practically empty now'. Mark has been to the Job Centre in the past but, because he was on ESA, he didn’t need to attend at the time we spoke to him.
Mark started attending Oasis Training in August 2015. Oasis Training is part of the Oasis Project, a charitable body of the Plymouth Methodist Mission Circuit. They have an internet cafe and provide training and support, including beginner IT classes, functional skills, healthy eating classes, advice, and a food bank.
As Mark explains, he first found out about Oasis Training because 'James, who lives in the same building as me, suggested this place. I came down, had a look and enrolled that day. It seemed friendlier here, obviously with the café, and obviously being local. You can [access a broad range of support] that’s the thing, and it’s also communal and nice to meet people. I’m always reading and I’ve got a friend that works down there as well'
At Oasis, Mark learned about how to find hospitals, doctors, banking, shopping, maps. '[The course] showed you how to get anywhere and do anything'. 'I learnt on there how to do my CVs and send them through the computer', and how to do patches for games. As he learnt more at the centre, Mark became more confident, and started to teach his friends back at the hostel, as well as informally supporting people at Oasis Training.
Before he sought support from Oasis, Mark described how he had used the computer before:
Years ago, my children went on it for me. I had a laptop and I used to take it away with me for when I was working away, so I could Skype. I did know little bits but not enough to actually be able to do anything. I was away all the time, I was away 5 days a week I just had it written down on a piece of paper, inside my laptop case, I had everything written down so I knew each step I had to follow.
After he stopped working, there was a long gap in which Mark didn’t use the internet at all. As he says, 'when I came here I actually started learning it again and as I went on it got easier and easier'.
When we first started interviewing him, Mark talked how hard it was to learn to use the internet: '[It was] difficult, very difficult. I’d say this will take me 20 minutes, the next thing two and a half hours later and you’re still there, still stuck on the first page.'
Although he found it difficult at first, Mark really enjoyed 'messing around' on his computer, and wanted his own access to the internet. There is no Wifi in his hostel, so he knew he needed to access the internet through a USB stick. Because of the support at Oasis, Mark was becoming more aware of device and access options. As he said, 'since I’ve been doing this I’ve been looking around, seeing all the places, and what I can do, I’ve even upgraded my computer. Rebuilding the one I’ve got. So I’m learning to do that as well'.
As he learnt more, Mark quickly became an advocate for digital skills. He’s a caring person and attributes some of his skills to the things he’s been through: 'It’s being in a hostel - you learn a lot of things from a lot of different people about what they need'. He was trying to do more out and about with other residents, and find small ways to connect with them. He was also helping and inspiring other residents to get them on courses at Oasis Training.
Although he is very positive about the benefits of digital, Mark remained quite circumspect in his relationship to digital finances. He is aware that a lot of things are shifting to digital, but isn’t sure about some recent developments: 'Now you can pay for things with your phone. I wouldn’t trust anything like that on a phone, you lose your phone, that’s it you’re in trouble then'.
At the second interview with Mark in February, he had stopped his regular visits to Oasis Training. He felt like he had a grip on how to use a computer, and had gone on to use his skills on a voluntary placement at Shekinah Mission, another community learning centre in Plymouth. He had known about Shekinah for a while, and started volunteering after attending a self reflection course there. At Shekinah, he uses his skills to teach construction, and helps people work towards their CITB CSCS card, the industry standard for site work. '[I volunteer] because it’s always helping others. If you can’t help others, what can you do?'
Mark hadn’t done anything like this before, but quickly learnt how with support from his manager as Shekinah and the skills he learnt at Oasis Training. Mark was finding it hectic, with new groups every couple of weeks. But he was enjoying it. Mark found that he was using a laptop a lot at work and 'actually bought a laptop as well'.
This was useful for his placement, because he quickly took on more responsibility and began supporting students with their project portfolios. He helps them to collect evidence of their work, which they can then take to employers: 'I have to take pictures, download them and send them off for their portfolios so when they leave they can actually go to a building site and say there is my portfolio, this is the stuff I have done'.
Since the first interview, Mark got an internet connection for his computer, and bought a second-hand laptop. Since buying the laptop, Mark no longer uses his computer. Mark was still using his smartphone for things like Facebook, although he only talks to people that contact him and doesn’t contact anyone first.
Since our second interview with Mark, he has been talking about his desire to look for work in the probation services. His feels that his work at Shekinah builds up valuable experience, 'working with other people of all different ages'. Mark knows that, if he goes into the probation service, 'the computer’s going to be very important', so 'my computer work will be of great use'.
When Mark reflects back on his time at Oasis Training, he says that 'the course has done me the biggest of favours that I could have hoped for. I’m at the top of my game'. Now he’s at Shekinah, he finds that he often has students with low digital skills, and he refers them back to Oasis: 'obviously some of them have not got the knowledge to be able to do it. So I’m actually sending people here'.
Six months further on, and Mark is doing building work for Oasis Training. In December 2016, he was hoping to get paid work at Shekinah, but the budget didn’t work out, and 'it was a bit of a let-down at the time'.
Although he has been volunteering for twelve months, he still feels like it is a big transition to paid employment. He doesn’t quite feel ready to start applying for work in the probation service yet, because if he moves into full-time employment then he will need to move out of supported accommodation. To move into employment, he would first need to find accommodation of his own, and live independently for the first time in two years. It’s a big step, to which he is moving closer.
In the meantime, Mark is happy to build and share his skills. He is a real internet advocate now - 'everything that I need to know is online' - and he is still trying to get people onto courses at Oasis Training. 'I’ve actually got all the posters pinned up at the hostel [...] it’s helped me and there’s loads of people there that are not doing nothing. I was ignorant of the computer and now it’s one of the biggest parts of my life'. In recognition for his voluntary work in the hostel, Mark has recently been nominated for a Homeless Link award.
Mark has recently been invited to an important strategic meeting for Shekinah which he was really proud about. He would be the only volunteer at the meeting and had been asked to go by the Manager at Shekinah and to prepare some work for it.
Mark is continuing to take a real interest in his students’ development. He is also at the point of taking ownership over Shekinah’s digital camera. As the person who uses it the most, making decisions about what they need to do the job. Use of digital devices like this has become very natural, and now supports all sorts of things that Mark does. In work, he uses a new tablet to check the stock of local suppliers before going out and buying tools or materials; 'that is part of our business, even though our business is actually building blocks and plastering walls'. At home, is Skyping with friends in Canada, and has even organised an appointment to set up online banking - something that he has been very sceptical about in the past.
Mark has been building his role at Shekinah. He enjoys the volunteering routine, likes the idea that one day it will lead to a paid job, and finds the purpose of his role really motivating, 'because the more you help somebody else the more better off you feel in yourself'. He is still living at the hostel, and spends a lot of time trying to keep fellow residents busy, through socials, support, and getting them involved in Shekinah. He knows it really important to 'get people out to do stuff, out and about'. People need a sense of achievement, 'something that you’ve completed', otherwise 'everything just carries on, boring and dull'.
Mark often reflects on his time sleeping rough as a turning point. It gave him insights which have changed the course of his life; 'opened my eyes to how much is wrong' by 'showing me a life I never knew'. During his time on the streets, he found that he lost a sense of time 'you don’t seem to recall time because all you notice is everybody disappear'. Recently, Mark has been able to use his experience in campaigning. He appeared in a recent BBC film which explored the context of the Homelessness Reduction Bill.
Reflecting on the past two years, Mark is happy with where he is now: where he has got to. As he says, 'the thing that goes on now is all good. I’ve been to the lowest place I could ever be, so now it’s all up'