From rough sleeper to youth worker – one man’s incredible journey

7 November 2023

There is no youth work without youth workers. Meet one of our ours…

We’d like you to meet Ed because the arc of Ed’s life story is quite remarkable. From sleeping rough in a shipping container and getting into trouble with the police, via living in Oxfordshire’s Young People’s Supported Accommodation service (Y.P.S.A.), he has forged a career as a progression coach at Oxfordshire Youth and is now working in the same service that once welcomed him in and off the streets.

Oxfordshire Youth’s progression coaches work side-by-side with care leavers, young homeless people and unaccompanied asylum seekers, encouraging them to develop the positive behaviours and skills essential for moving on to successful independent living. This means that Ed works in the field of his own past trauma every day, exposing himself to experiences and struggles similar to those he endured. He believes that his difficult life history and the progression it exemplifies allow him to both engage and inspire the young people he is striving to help, and so do we. Over to you Ed…

“My rock bottom point was going cold turkey whilst sleeping rough in a storage unit. My life was an absolute mess. I was in my twenties and I had run out of sofas to sleep on and favours to call in. I was on probation after a recent court sentence and I was starting to see how badly what I was doing was affecting my family. Finally, mum told me I had to sort myself out because she couldn’t be there to watch me hurt myself any more, and I stopped drinking and taking drugs on the spot. My bond with mum is very special, so I knew I couldn’t be the cause of any more suffering for her. I just wanted to make her proud of me. 

I wasn’t really able to look after myself, and ended up sleeping on a sofa in a Y.P.S.A. service in Witney. I cleaned the place up and then a staff member called Catherine found me. She was amazing and saw how motivated I was to keep everything clean and tidy. Catherine should probably have asked me to leave, but instead she got me assessed and moved into another property. Having a stable place to live made a world of difference: it enabled me to sort myself out and even start studying. 

I was in the last year of a degree in Applied Social Science at Ruskin College, when Oxfordshire Youth emailed all the students advertising a Progression Coach job. Ruskin is a magical place because it offers a real second chance, or sometimes last, for people who struggled at school and you don’t need to have A levels to do their courses. Something stuck out to me about that advert, because I saw that O.Y. was reaching out to the kind of people studying at Ruskin. 

I applied, but had lots of anxiety about my past and what would come up when they contacted the Disclosure and Disbarring Service to do a criminal record check. At that time, I was at the end of a suspended sentence which made me think no one would take a chance on employing me. However, I was very honest about everything and the people who interviewed me saw past my history and realised that I had a passion for working with young people in need. I will be forever grateful to Oxfordshire Youth for giving me that opportunity. 

Even before I started work I had huge support from the People and Culture team and I was risk assessed for the role to make sure I was safe to work with the client group. I never once felt that they distrusted me. Right from the start, there was a big team who maybe sensed I was a bit nervous and they took me out shadowing them to learn on the job. I had a superb line manager who checked in with me regularly and explained the role. There was always someone on the end of the phone so I learnt really quickly and didn’t have to feel like I couldn’t do the job, even though I hadn’t done anything like it before. Eventually, as part of my work I crossed paths with Catherine Forteath, the woman who had picked me up off that sofa years before. She recognised me straight away, congratulated me and said she’d heard I was doing a great job and was proud of me. It’s amazing to think that now we’re both Progression Coaches for Oxfordshire Youth!

As part of my role, I meet some kids who have experienced the same trauma I went through, and that can be a trigger for me, but it’s so rewarding when you help them through it. That’s what I’m in it for. I started out saying if I changed one person’s life for the better I’d have achieved what I set out to do. But I feel I’ve surpassed that here. I still get young people I’m no longer working with call me, so I must be doing something right. Sometimes they’ve got good news and I think, “Wow, you’re really different from when I first met you”, and that’s the best feeling. They say I tell it how it is and don’t treat them like little kids. The people I got the most out of when I needed help were the ones who had had similar experiences themselves and that’s why I wanted to do this. I get to help young people to find a way of standing up for themselves. Whilst they’re developing that ability, I’m there to advocate for them in meetings with doctors, potential employers and colleges or with professionals where big decisions are made about their lives. 

My background was childhood trauma and mental health difficulties, undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a recreational drug habit. The world is very amplified and noisy for me and at the time I didn’t know why, so I took drugs to drown out the noise. Those experiences gave me the desire to help kids like me not to have to go through what I did, for as long as I did. My lived experience makes me a good progression coach because when I go to support a young person, I feel I have more understanding of them than I would without it. I try to put myself in their shoes and ask myself how I’d want to be spoken to and treated. I think what I’ve been through gives me an understanding of how much patience is needed. To them, you’re just another professional in a massive line of all the people they’ve had to deal with over the years but I can even share my experiences to a certain level, and that helps the young people I’m working with to see that I really do understand what they’re going through. Then we can form the kind of bond they often haven’t had before. 

If anyone else with my kind of background is thinking about doing this work, I want you to know that you’re needed by these young people. Progression coaches that they can relate to provide an example for them. When they’re stuck in a daily struggle with the cost of living crisis and everything they’ve been through to end up in Y.P.S.A., we’re there to show them that there is light at the end of the tunnel. They need that in order to make a success of their transition from childhood to adulthood. 

As well as me working in the service that once housed me, and meeting up with Catherine again, another neat circle in all this is that I got one of the kids I support onto a course at Ruskin College with my old tutor. This lad has just received his first distinction for a piece of coursework despite experiencing some real challenges in his life. I loved hearing that, what a result!”

If Ed’s story inspires you to consider becoming a youth worker, Oxfordshire Youth runs a Level 2 Award in Youth Work Principles to get you started. Our first group gets going tomorrow, but more start dates are coming up soon. Contact to talk about the course and how your lived experience could make you perfect for the role and check out the Work with us pages on our website. 

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