Olwyn Popperwell, 47, walked into Evolve Housing and Support, desperate to find somewhere to live. Over the course of two weeks, he got a referral from the Council, an interview with a support worker, and a room at the hostel. For Olwyn, “it was like the turning point in a road that was going nowhere.”
He explains: “I was going through a difficult part of my life, you know, I was living with girlfriends and then living with brothers and then living on couches and then living on park benches and in cars, and it was just getting worse and worse. One day when I went back to my Mum’s, again, she just said, “No, you can’t stay.” I think they call it tough love. It hurt. They just wanted me to sort myself out, but I didn’t know where to start.”
That’s when Olwyn saw the hostel sign, and walked in to chat to someone - also homeless - at the front desk. He continues: “I owe a big thank you to that bloke - without him I’d probably still be on the benches. But I thought, ‘that could be me’. He’d worked his way up, you know? It wasn’t easy to ask for help, or to go through all the hoops to get it, and I could have easily said ‘Do you know what? Forget this’. But I said, ‘No, I’m going to stick with it.’”
At Evolve, Olwyn was assigned a key worker, Gamel. Olwyn continues: “I’ve got to big up Gamel because he’s done so much for me. He’s my icon, my mentor. He kind of restored faith in me. I felt myself opening up - before I just kept everything buttoned up and it was like a cancer killing me. So I told Gamel what was going on and he said “We can deal with that problem”. I’m thinking, ‘What do you mean we can deal with it? I’ve been trying to deal with it for the last 20 years and I’m still not dealing with it’. But Gamel made a list and we just started going through it, making phone calls, writing letters, sending emails, helping me out - doing all the things I’d been putting off or ignoring or couldn’t cope with. Then I just felt good in myself because I’m finally doing something to make my life better.”
It took Olwyn a while to settle in at the hostel, and at first he kept himself to himself. But Gamel soon persuaded him to get involved in the activities, including Evolve’s new peer-run computer classes.
“I’d used the computers but I was going on Facebook, YouTube, just recreational stuff, killing time,” explains Olwyn. “Then one day I thought, ‘You know what? I need to sort my CV out’. I’ve not worked in years but it was like I was just ready. I felt good enough and better enough and settled enough to start looking for work.
“I was looking for something part time, because I didn’t want to get deep into work and then realise it’s a bit too much and then go all the way back again to where I was. I wanted to build it up.
“I knew about these websites and stuff to look for jobs but not how to use them, and I didn’t have anything like a CV to send out. So the tutor, she got me to gather together all my qualifications and put them on the computer. At the same time the IT classes were going on and I was finding out things I didn’t know you could do on a computer, like attaching documents to your email and things like that.”
Olwyn started job hunting online, too, applying for 10-15 jobs a week. He says: “I got feedback from quite a lot, and then all of a sudden, bang, I’m getting interviews - people actually want to see me, which I’ve never had in my life!
“The next thing I know I’ve got Amazon want to interview me, and Network Rail. I flew the interviews - at Amazon they gave me a little question sheet and I got every question right. My confidence had built up being at Evolve so I knew how to carry myself, I wasn’t as scared as before. I got both jobs! I thought to myself, ‘I can’t believe this’. I’ve gone from no job for years to getting two in a week.
“Now everyone’s talking to me again. People are phoning me, and my Mum, she’s so proud of me. I don’t think she thought I could turn myself around, you know? She speaks very highly of Evolve and everything they’ve done for me. She said to me, “You need to give something back, they’ve given you so much, you need to give something back.” So when Gamel suggested I become a customer rep - like the guy on the front desk that first day - I decided to do it.
“I thought I was being taken for a mug at first, and I thought, ‘how am I going to help anyone?’ But I went to a few meetings and started slow. And I started to engage with the other customers and started getting involved with things. Helping others get involved, too. The kind of service Evolve laid on for me, I mean, I sometimes I think about where I was and where I am now and it’s frightening. I believe for this to really work, for me to really complete this circle, I need to give something back. It’s part of keeping my feet on the ground, you know, not getting too above myself because it’s a long way to fall all the way back down.”
Now Olwyn is a customer rep at Evolve and a peer mentor in Evolve’s computer classes. He’s also working 16 hours a week, and he’s finally got his own place in a block of flats in New Addington. He’s keeping himself busy decorating, sorting his bills out, getting to know the neighbours and working.
“I feel good in myself now,” says Olwyn, “I feel like Olwyn. I wasn’t myself for a long time. But then that’s the frightening bit, because when things are good you think ‘is it all going to start falling apart?’ and you start thinking the worse and everything. But then I look out of the window of my new flat - I’m on the sixth floor - at all the lights, and all the stars. You can see the Shard, Canary Wharf and all that. And I feel blessed. It puts things in perspective, you know?
“I wouldn’t be where I am now - I wouldn’t have done even a quarter of it - without Evolve. Without Gamel helping me, being so positive, believing in me. Without the computer centre, and the shelter, and all of that. I’ve come from sleeping on park benches to my own place, my own job. And I’m pretty happy with that - in fact I’m over the moon. I owe everyone there a really big thank you.”
Tano Bellone is Work and Learning Manager at Evolve Housing, and he’s seen how far Olwyn’s come since he first walked through their doors. He’s delighted that the Reboot UK project allowed them to offer computer classes on site, because it’s been an important part of Olwyn’s journey. He says: “Being able to offer computer classes has really enhanced what we do at Evolve, and Olwyn’s a great example of how it’s already making a difference.
“Much of what Gamel has done with Olwyn has been about finding information and re-making connections, and these days the internet is a key part of that. It’s also obviously important in finding work and building skills for work. Learn My Way is a really effective tool for us because it’s bite-sized, and people can dip in and out and learn relatively independently - at their own pace, with support available as and when they need it.
“The computer classes are now the most popular classes we run, and there’s always someone asking about them. We want to extend them so we offer them at all of our shelters, and perhaps have peer-to-peer mentors, like Olwyn, helping us to run the lessons. Hopefully, that will see even more people build their confidence and skills, and move into stable employment and accommodation - just as Olwyn has.”