Meet the man who helped to bring a community together to help those most in need during the coronavirus pandemic
- Credit: Archant
Throughout this interview with Simon Crowson, the chair and leading figure in 50 Backpacks, I shall refer to him as Spike. It’s the name that’s become synonymous with the man and the organisation that’s fired new life into support for the homeless.
There are few who will not have heard of BackPacks in recent months as it became a focal point for those disadvantaged in Wisbech by the pandemic. And of that, more later.
What of Spike himself?
Even before the pandemic he had shaped BackPacks, and quickly, into a formidable support movement. With those helped into permanent housing since last November now into double figures that is no mean achievement.
Coronavirus, however, by accident or design, widened the scope of BackPacks and very quickly it became an unofficial hub providing food and supplies to those who most in need.
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“When Covid-19 came along, we had a surplus of supplies that we weren’t able to use because we weren’t allowed to run group sessions anymore,” says Spike.
“So, we put them into parcels and sent them out to people that were in need. But within three days of doing that, we outgrew our premises.
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“I spoke to Rev Matthew and Lucy that run St Peter’s Church Hall and they were more than happy to accommodate us here for however long it took”.
Of the man himself and until now Spike has declined TV, radio and newspaper interviews.
But with the pandemic crisis easing and 50 BackPacks looking to step up a gear, he agreed to meet. No questions were off limit. So, who is he? And what drove him to want to help the homeless?
“I was once homeless,” he says. “I suffered badly with mental health. I had several diagnoses; perhaps I was bipolar or something else.
“But through my own drive and determination, I proved that I was quite normal, well, what I’m doing now isn’t normal!
“The fact that I’d been homeless, and I felt looked down on, meant I knew how difficult it was in the cold, and how little support there was even though there were organisations to help.
“What I needed was the emotional support and I couldn’t find that, so I turned my back on any support that was available.
“I was in a terrible state. I was justifying things in my own mind and acting upon that, which caused criminal activity.”
The mood darkened as he continued with his story.
He said: “I thought about suicide on several occasions; I was getting into fights, I caused criminal damage and lots of other things which were through my mental health that I couldn’t get support for. “
Did he blame mental health for previous actions or was Spike in full control?
“I don’t believe I was in control, but I know 100 per cent I couldn’t get the support that I needed,” he said. “I didn’t need someone to sit ticking boxes. I needed someone I could talk to, and it wasn’t there.
“That is what motivates me to do what we do with compassion, empathy and genuine practical support.”
I asked Spike if someone could come out the woodwork and say, ‘this isn’t true’.
He said: “I have got all the evidence to back it up and I also have police reports to back up my activity, so anybody is welcome to question anything I’ve said. Simon Crowson, open book”.
His work with BackPacks was shaped whilst working for the Ferry Project, set up more than 20 years ago to provide accommodation and support for the homeless.
He says he parted company as he felt the organisation did not go far enough in providing what he terms “much needed additional support.
“I saw that in 2017 that there was not a united approach to homelessness services.
“I started a night shelter crisis fund because we had a guy that came in and had an abscess, but there weren’t the funds available to get him into a dentist.
“I donated part of my wages while I was working at the Ferry Project into this crisis fund, so there was money there for people in an emergency to get some help if they needed it.
“I recognised quickly there were people that needed more help than what there was available”.
At that time 50 Backpacks, he says, was a small group collecting items to put into backpacks to donate to The Ferry Project and to the homeless.
Last July he joined 50 Backpacks “and I did say at the time it has so much more potential from the plans I already made to fill this void.
“50 Backpacks was already set up and registered as a charitable organisation. We’re registered as a not-for-profit organisation, recognised as a charity.
“We get our money through public funding. Simple as that. “Everything we do is on a 100 per cent voluntary basis”.
Other than £1,000 from Wisbech Town Council, BackPacks money comes from public and business donations, or what they raise themselves.
Prior to Spike taking the helm at BackPacks it had experienced issues and he was asked to take on the running of it.
He says: “I took over with less than £1,000 in the account a year ago. We didn’t have premises, just one container where we kept items of clothing.
“We now have premises at Bridge Street. It’s a privately leased space that’s licensed for community groups, a tea shop and they have a dry bar licence as well.”
Spike takes a moment to reflect on the public’s knowledge and perception of him and BackPacks.
“As you know, I do not talk to the media, ever,” he says. “We often make it into the papers, from our Facebook page and website, but I’ve never spoken once to the media.
“Hopefully, you will portray us in the way we deserve.”
We return to the moment Spike took over the running of BackPacks.
“It took us three weeks to open,” he says. “It was through word of mouth and social media.”
How did he feel when it opened for the first time?
“It was quite scary; we were full,” he says. On the first evening, we opened at 5pm and closed at 9pm, and that gives them that time to get off the streets until the night shelter opens.
“We would serve approximately 1,057 hot drinks per week, 259 hot meals in the evening per week and over 140 breakfasts between 8-9 in the mornings.”
Wisbech has become a focus for many organisations providing support for the homeless with Government money channelled through Fenland Council. So what makes BackPacks different, I asked Spike?
“It was glaringly obvious that there was a gap in the market, but all the other organisations are tied up with their red tapes,” says Spike. “They can only help certain people under certain funds and there are grants to do particular things. “There isn’t an organisation that isn’t worried about the positive outcomes, the glorification or the funding, or anything else”.
Spike believes a different approach, that BackPacks now offers, is better and more sustainable. He feels that many of the successes pointed to by officialdom ultimately fail but a positive spin is put on them to attract further funding.
We are in difficult territory, but Spike believes finding landlords willing to rent to homeless people has been a key ingredient to the success BackPacks enjoys.
“The main thing that is missing from some, but not all, organisations in Wisbech is love and compassion,” says Spike. “We’ve worked with people that have been through a really tough time. Very few of the organisations will show any compassion towards their situation. Everything is red tape and regulated.
“Those rules and regulations I believe prevent them from being treated like human beings giving them choice and options.
“I’m not criticising any individual organisations. The criticism comes when the organisations will not work together.
“If we had one big fund for homelessness in Wisbech, then split between the rough sleepers, they could go to where they needed the help and they would have that credit to receive the help. “It’s easy to sit at a desk and tick boxes, but I believe the evidence of help comes from the people themselves.
“I’ve been on the annual Government count of homeless twice. Once a homeless person was the only one recorded that night in Wisbech but with ‘fragile’ evidence. Later the figures were disputed - how can you get the counting wrong?
“The count is done on one night of the year in November with a government official. They must be sleeping rough within one metre of the bedding. If they’re sleeping in a squat with a roof over their head, they can’t be counted.
“One year I did it, there were 22 people in a squat down Alexandra Road who couldn’t be counted. I stated to the official that night that I know where there are 22 people; we couldn’t count them because it was a squat; they have to be rough sleeping outdoors”.
Spike said: “Lots of the rough sleepers I work with will walk around all night and sleep in parks in the daytime because they feel safer.
“If you’re walking around town and rough sleeping in the daytime, you don’t count. If they don’t come across you on that day because you’re buried away in some scrubland, you don’t count”.
Spike is already working on the next stage for 50 BackPacks and that includes a CIC (community interest company) and once that’s complete, to make an application to the Charity Commission.
He says: “We already have the structure, a chairman, secretary, a treasurer. We have four other trustees.
“Have we made a difference? I’ll leave the public to decide that. 50 BackPacks will continue to be self-sufficient and sustain ourselves, and we have lots of plans that will come to fruition later in the year”.
He hopes the people of Wisbech will “continue doing what they’ve already done, which is to give the time, the donations, the funding. Everything we do has been made possible because of the people of Wisbech.
“Without them, we don’t have the resources to do what we do”.
Summing up, I asked Spike what he felt had been the one key to success for 50 Backpacks.
“The biggest thing I believe that makes it successful is the lack of rules,” he says. “That may sound strange and we have our regulations, which anybody that knows me knows I’m a stickler for regulations.
“As far as the clients are concerned, if they come in and break the rules, they’re asked to leave, but to come back the next morning for breakfast and talk about it.
“50 Backpacks took off immediately and within a matter of days, the other organisations started to hear about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.
“I had masses of emails from other organisations wanting to come on board and work alongside us.
“We’ve done everything behind the scenes because it’s never been about us. We’ve never wanted any recognition for what we’ve done.
“People liked the new concept of openness and to be able to provide immediate help for people in crisis.”
Spike believes he is a good example of a life that can be turned around.
“I am the prime example that it can be done,” he says. “If I can do it, anybody else can.”