Q&A: Meet our new trustee Ross Watkins

Monday, 5 May 2014 - 9:00am

Ross Watkins became a Homeless Link trustee last November, bringing personal experience of homelessness to our Board. We caught up with him recently to talk about the sector and his new role. 

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I had a fairly normal childhood, but in my teens my life became chaotic, culminating in me serving a prison term in my late teens. I worked in the construction industry as a bricklayer and over time started a small building business.

There was never much stability in my life and I was under huge amounts of pressure, balancing the books, paying people. I ended up going through, what I now know to be, a mental breakdown and I walked out on everything. My home, my business. I went to live on the streets with nothing but a bag of clothes. I was free of those pressures and bizarrely I enjoyed sleeping rough, but that wasn’t going to last. I got myself a cheap set of tools and started working on building sites, but that was impossible to sustain while sleeping rough. It was an Off the Streets and Into Work building project up in Cumbria that enabled me to move on.

Later, when I was working as a bricklayer in Cambridge, I started volunteering at Jimmy’s Nightshelter, and went full time in outreach with them soon after. I absolutely loved it. It was that whole thing of wanting to do something more. I was going out, finding people, helping them into the best and most suitable accommodation that I could. Today, I’m a Deputy Community Leader at Emmaus in Lambeth.

How important is your personal experience in your work?

One conversation has stuck with me since I came off the streets. It was with my outreach worker. His options for me were basically to beg or work on the black market. Looking back maybe this was half tongue in cheek, but at the time it was probably one of the lowest moments in my life. I wanted to change, I wanted to move on, but the one person who should have been able to help me couldn’t do anything. I understand a lot of what people sleeping rough are going through. I know how important it is to be able to ask someone for support and for them to give you an honest, realistic response. It’s the only way to help someone get what they want. People have to make their own decisions, and you need to be able to give them the information to allow them to do that. You have to be there to support them, whether their decisions are right or wrong. They need to know that if they screw up, that you’re still there to support them, that you aren’t going to stand behind them and mock them.

What are your thoughts on the way the sector has changed over the past few years?

When the original Comprehensive Spending Review came out, I think the sector was devastated. So many good workers were lost – so much local experience that you just can’t replace. While services were restructured, I think a lot of service users bore the brunt of it. Many lost the professionals they’d built up relationships with and they had to start over, building trust with new workers. But many services - outreach teams in particular - have done really well to keep changing and to manage with the budgets that they’ve got.

What do you hope to achieve as a Homeless Link trustee?

With all the changes that have gone on in frontline homelessness services, so much of the good stuff has come as a result of service user input. I think the views of service users are absolutely integral to all future changes to the homelessness sector. Homeless Link is one of the major players in saying what changes need to happen. Service users need to lead that. I want to go out, talk to people, find out what they want, find out what’s working and what isn’t.

How would you transform the homelessness sector for the better?

I would reintroduce mental health services with decent budgets. Mental health is one of the primary reasons people continue with drug and alcohol use. We need to create a system where people are properly supported and not chucked onto the streets on drugs. It’s vital that we start to rebuild those services.