Jimmy Carlson OBE 1947- 2017

jim speaks out 2000

Jimmy Carlson OBE the renowned homelessness activist has died from respiratory health complications aged 69.

Jimmy, a former soldier was awarded the OBE in 2012 for services to combating homelessness after 20 years as a passionate advocate of client involvement. This was preceded by over 20 years of alcoholism in a revolving door of rough sleeping, mental health institutions, prisons and homeless hostels.  Jimmy became the heart and soul of Groundswell during his voluntary work with the organisation, which began in 1997 and included serving as a Trustee for the last five years.

Jimmy described his initial encounter with Groundswell in an interview with Governance International. ‘I knew I needed to do more and I wanted to give something back. I ended up at an event with Groundswell and heard presentations from Slum Dwellers International who are based in India. Their stories were amazing about how they worked together to help themselves out of poverty. Me and my friend had never heard anything like it – so we got ourselves to The Groundswell Forum event in Sheffield where they were running workshops.
The main thing we picked up was “homeless people are not the problem but are part of the solution”. This inspired me and I started volunteering at the Groundswell head office. By the time of the next years Forum I was running my own workshops.’
The Speakout was where Jimmy initially showed his determination and passion, events where people experiencing homelessness could talk directly to decision makers. He became transformed with a microphone in his hand, talking about his own experiences of homelessness and crucially – what was needed to be done. He became involved in organising Speakouts around the UK, culminating in a National Speakout in 2001, where we brought together homeless people from all the Speakouts we had organised across the UK to talk directly with Mo Mowlam who had responsibility for overseeing the Government’s Social Exclusion Unit and Dame Lousie Casey, who was running the Department for Communities and Local Government’s (DCLG) Rough Sleeping Unit. Jimmy persuaded Mo to come to the Groundswell office to follow up on her commitments and the ‘Speakout’ made it into the Code of Guidance of the 2002 Homelessness Act as a recommended way of consulting with people experiencing homelessness.
Working in tandem with Dr Mike Seal, Jimmy became Groundswell’s leading client involvement trainer. Mike is the author of the definitive client involvement text ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ and is now a reader in critical pedagogy at Newman University remembers: “Jimmy always had a quiet authority based on his integrity. Nothing would phase him in training – if he thought something needed challenging, be it from a client, a worker or the chief executive, he would make that challenge – but he cared. He cared that things should be better for clients in the services we worked with – and that shone through and inspired people. Most of all jimmy wanted to learn from others and would always push himself, which in turn pushed others – we always joked about what he would do when he retired because we knew he wouldn’t, there was always much more to be done.
Jimmy’s passionate and forthright manner was on display when we delivered a presentation at the St Mungo’s staff away day in 2004. It was the third year in a row Groundswell had been invited to speak and he was determined to have a positive influence on the charity that had helped house him.  I was wrapping up when he took the microphone from me. “Right just so as you know. This is last time we do a presentation on client involvement – without any clients here. So sort it out.” We soon launched an organisation wide client involvement initiative which resulted in the creation of Outside In, St Mungo’s client involvement group, still going strong over 10 years later.
There was always a progression to Jimmy’s thinking and despite the successes of the Speakout, knowing it was a positive result to get decision makers and homeless people in the same room talking, he felt there needed to be a greater focus on the follow up action. He wanted to create a national group of former rough sleepers with real influence and worked with Geoffrey Randall, the legendary homelessness researcher to create the Homeless People’s Commission. Using an adaptation of the citizen’s jury model, he brought together homeless people from each English region with academics, practitioners and policy makers to develop 93 recommendations for the Government.
I recall one HPC session where the Chief Executive of a major national homelessness agency was showing photos of a dingy night shelter basement in contrast to his new multi million pound hostel; explaining how his approach was the answer. Jimmy put up his hand and said. ‘Yes – but if wasn’t for that night shelter, I wouldn’t be here. They took me in when no one else would. That night shelter saved my life.
The Homeless People Commission report was presented to the DCLG at the House of Lords and at the Ministerial Working Group on Tackling Homelessness and was quoted extensively in the 2011 Government strategy ‘Vision to End Rough Sleeping – No Second Night Out Nationwide’.
Jimmy was a compulsive archiver and was delighted to work with the nascent Museum of Homelessness on Groundswell’s 20th anniversary history project – he went on to become a Trustee for the Museum and at the time of his death he was working on a major exhibition to be launched at the Tate Modern in April, 2017. Jess Turtle, co-founder said “Jimmy was instrumental in the development of the Museum of Homelessness; a champion, a wise counsel and a dear friend.
Health and homelessness was always a significant issue for Jimmy and in 2003 he undertook the first significant piece of Groundswell work in this area when, in partnership with Health Link he conducted a study into the treatment of homeless people in A&E departments. Always ahead of his time, health would go on to become Groundswell’s major focus with the launch of the Homeless Health Peer Advocacy service in 2010. Ten years later, the world had caught up with Jimmy and one of his proudest moments was addressing the opening plenary of the inaugural International Symposium on Health and Homelessness in 2013.
The Health Link report produced an influential series of recommendations – and Jimmy was determined that this would not be focused exclusively at policy makers. He ensured that training and handouts were created for hospital security guards and receptionists, who he knew had more direct contact with rough sleepers and were in need of guidance and support. These were initially rolled out at the Whittington hospital, where Jimmy went on to receive care for his ongoing respiratory health problems, and from where he discharged himself from on Saturday 7 January 2016, before passing away at home in his beloved flat.
James Robert Carlson was born in Leeds in 1947, the second oldest of five siblings. He was raised his Mother, Ivy Rose, who was a home help and his step-father Bill Rose who worked on the buses in Leeds. After leaving school Jimmy worked in a dry cleaners and in a Canada Dry soft drinks factory before joining the army at the age of 21. Jimmy had already developed alcohol problems in his youth before joining up, which ultimately led to his medical discharge form the Royal Pioneer Corps after five years of service. He found the return to civilian life difficult and could not hold down a job – always ending up in the psychiatric ward in St James Hospital. Where at the time alcoholism was dealt with in an uncomplicated manner. “Rather than talk, they’d rather just dope you up” reflected Jimmy during an interview for Groundswell News in 2000.
This led to a five-year cycle, which Jimmy described as a “roundabout – detoxes, dry houses, back out onto the streets, prison, out of prison, streets, detox and then on and on.  It was a cycle that I was quite happy at the time living.  All the time I was in that cycle, I didn’t have to think for myself.  People were looking after me.  I didn’t have any worries of rent, rates, bills.  I had nothing like that to worry about – it was just an easy free life.  I used to often sit on a park bench, watching people walk by, thinking ‘look at those idiots’.  But who were the idiots – them or me?”
Jimmy eventually left Leeds and began a tour of the so- called ‘Spikes’ around the country, short-term hostel accommodation where you could get food and board, which Jimmy used to facilitate his street drinking lifestyle.
“I always looked in drink, no matter what it was – wine, bottles of cider, surgical spirits, mentholated spirits, aftershave – I looked for comfort in the drinking.  What I mean by comfort is – I was looking for oblivion, not to think about anything other than where I was getting the next drink from – which led to petty crime and becoming a person that, deep down, I didn’t really like but I couldn’t get away from him.  It was so much easier to lose myself in drink and never have to face up to responsibility, no matter how little or big the things seemed to be. “
Jimmy settled into street life in London in 1986. Spending time between various squats, the streets around Embankment and some hostels run by St Mungo’s, who eventually got him his own flat in 1996 and encouraged him to attend ARP (the Alcohol Recovery Project, now Foundation 66), who supported Jimmy to become sober for the first time in his adult life in August 1996.
It was with ARP that Jimmy had his initial taste of client involvement on the Advisors to the Board group (A2B). Julie Bentley, now the Chief Executive of Girlguiding, was then managing the process for ARP, she remembers “Jimmy was instrumental in developing service user involvement at ARP, he was the first service user rep to get involved and became a role model for working in partnership with staff to really get meaningful engagement on the map, he helped to develop training to support people to use their voice culminating in several service users becoming full and equal members of the Board of Trustees. Jimmy was a vocal, passionate and fair champion for the voice of services users and it was a tremendous privilege to work alongside him.”
Jimmy maintained his commitment to creating recovery opportunities for people with addictions and he went on to Chair the Islington Clients in Drug and Alcohol Services group.  Then, together with fellow ARP A2B member Mark Flynn, Jimmy set up The Haven, a social club where people in recovery from substance misuse could meet in an alcohol and drug free environment, to help each other get their lives back on track. Starting with a £500 grant from Groundswell, they raised over £100,000 to keep the club going.
On receiving his OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2012 Jimmy Carlson said: “I am humbled to receive this honour. I have been to the very bottom and never would have imagined this day then. Lots of people have helped me on the way and I can only hope that my story can inspire others – the same way I have been helped.”
“My message is never give up on anyone. You would have walked over me in the street 15 years ago and thought I was a lost cause, just another drunk. However I picked myself up and 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. Never give up on anyone.”
Athol Halle, Chief Executive, Groundswell 16 January 2017
Jimmy Carlson, 64, from Islington, London, who is to receive an OBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours for services to homeless people. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Friday June 15, 2012. Mr Carlson spent 23 years homeless or living in hostels but turned his life around. See PA story HONOURS Carlson. Photo credit should read: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Jimmy with Guards
Islington Award 2009
Mark and Corine Forum 2002
Forum 2000
Steve Scott 09
My beautiful picture
jimmy and mike at party
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