The back story

by Jo Ashburner Farr

Homeless and living with a child in a car ROOF Jo Ashburner Farr

I have experienced homelessness.

In 1999, I had been married for seven years and lived in London and abroad, but eight weeks before my son was born I unexpectedly found myself alone with no access to funds and nowhere to live. My husband had feathered another nest and took off with everything without warning leaving me stranded with no access to funds, the clothes on my back and pregnant.

I just didnt see it coming.  I considered all the worst case exit scenario and survival strategies a vulnerable woman can face, I gave birth not knowing where my husband was without a clue as to what the future held and no way of paying for a home or food or bills.  I drove to London with an offer of work as a day time nanny with my own baby in tow and sofa surfed for a while, eventually living and sleeping in a loaned car while I tried to work out what to do....I was determined not to let my predicament and situation define me but it was impossible to know what to do. I was just totally unprepared.

​I had no choice but to overcome my dire situation and took a leap of faith going back in full time education. The Head of Foundation Art and Design at Swansea Institute (now UWTSD) gave me the break I needed to make a change in my personal circumstances and to his credit never judged me for it, either then or since.  He probably had an inkling that I was homeless when he accepted me onto the course but never raised the subject.  Soon after starting the course, I was given the choice of three council houses in a Swansea district (better named 'Beirut') and given the choice wouldnt have housed any living thing in any of them, but when I was told that if I didnt take one of them Id be put to the bottom of the waiting list, I took the third and spent a week cleaning it, ripping out the flea infested carpet, washing down the shit stained walls and replacing the urine soaked floorboards.  I cried non stop but managed to maintain some sort of routine.  A friend gave me a TV and my son and and I lived on the ground floor on the mattress on the concrete floor while we rebuilt our lives.  It sounds grim now and it was hard but my son and I were together.  We were safe and together and happy and warm and we managed.

​I worked hard and (although Ill never have the bank balance of JK Rowling who was in the same predicament at the same time!), I refused to let being a single mum, living in a council house and surviving on 12p a day (after rent, utilities and bills) define me. No one but my closest friends knew what I came back from.  I learned the hard way that trust is an expensive extravagance.

I remember the barriers to recovering which made life so difficult, even from those I turned to for help. My younger brother and wife supported my ex husband in his attempt to get custody of my son, who refused to bow to family pressure to allow me to live in one of their empty properties while I got back on my feet.  Their actions left me dumbfounded and I resolved to separate myself from anything and everyone connected to the reasons for my situation and vowed that one day I would succeed and help others who were struggling to survive

Four years later, I represented myself in the High Court in London and set a legal precedent to retain sole custody of my son in the April.  In June the same year, I graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Surface Pattern Design and on the back of my Noonoo designs I won a Scholarship to do a Masters in Enterprise at University of Manchester; and within two years of graduation I was awarded UK National Businesswoman of the Year for Ethical Manufacturing.​ I was supported on this journey by very generous and dear people who I will always be indebted to for their foresight and loyalty.

So....ROOF is not at all about me and I don't feel I owe anyone an explanation, much less expect or want any applause for my achievements.  But I undoubtedly have first hand experience of the humiliation of having nothing and dark memories of my fight to regain and retain dignity, self-confidence, my rightful place in the world and a roof over (our) heads. Everything happens for a reason and ROOF is mine. 

Wanting to work

All I ever wanted to do was prove my own worth to myself and to provide for my child.  All I wanted was the chance to work and earn a fair wage to pay for a home and food and warmth. I totally understand how people just never get out of that trap. Im an intelligent person and I don't even know how I came to be there in the first place..... but I made up for it by getting out.​

On the way back to rehabilitation, I learned first hand how employers presume that someone who is visibly different in any way from the average norm is perceived to be a harder option than an employee who meets the usual person specifications for a job. By that I mean that I didnt have the clothes but I did have the voice. I dont have a Welsh accent, I have a deep Queen's English accent, which I know helped me stand out and cut a path through decision maker's authority. 

It just doesn’t add up that public, private or other money is spent on training people (able bodied, marginalised or otherwise) with every good intention but that a disproportionately miniscule amount of money is then spent on supporting the very businesses which create the jobs that they are being trained for in the first place. ​I am under no illusion that ROOF will categorically solve the homeless problem but its a start.

Homelessness is a complex multi-faceted social phenomenon and there is a risk of actually marginalising those who don’t have that drive intact to make a change if they ever had it at all for a multitude of reasons.  ​I am however determined to reach out to homeless people with an opportunity and give them the tools to remove barriers to motivation by tapping into people’s individual motivation and creating conditions that will help those that make up this group want to be a part of this business and want to make a step change in their lives towards a better quality of life.

In ROOF I hope to be able to alter attitudes in any small way possible and develop a vehicle which will train people for real actual long term jobs. I will continue to seek out those people who want to work, want to learn skills, want to belong to something long term - as an individual and a business - and I’m offering to train them to make to sell to grow to sell again. ​

ROOF will have a knock-on effect for a great social and economic good

Give someone a goal, an aspirational motivation, support them to achieve their goals and you'll find the good and the will to succeed in people. Fact.  Every person within this business has responsibilities and instead of everyone focusing on their own specific job within the business (like a separate business cog), we all share responsibilities and decisions and make plans together.

We train everyone in the same way and we work to find each individual's strength so that everyone who works within the business is able to take ownership of their own role and their responsibilities, be awarded and rewarded, educated and developed for the long haul and to treat this business as they would if it were their own - which in fact it is in all but name.

Individuals’ strengths and weaknesses are accounted for and the workload is shared. Incentives, child care support, flexible working hours, a TOIL (time off in lieu) system, social events, external training opportunities and a say in the business are just some of the opportunities given to current RDM staff and the same would be extended to those who work on the ROOF project as part of the same business family.​

I have taken nine month’s pay in 31 months of building the business from scratch to where it is now (all members of staff including me are paid the national living wage pro rata) and I have been developing, prototyping, researching ROOF since 2008 to bring it to a point where I can now step back from running the flagmaking side of RDM to concentrate on what I believe will be a game changer.

Research and development

​In 2008 I was asked by an childhood friend of mine to look at the sleeping bag his mother had given him which dated from the 70s and which he wanted to get help with reproducing for his company BELL TENT UK.  We played around with some prototypes for a sleeveless sleeping bag specifically for festivals but the project never came to anything but it prompted me to start looking at designing a similar product for social benefit 

I did my market research but my NOONOO business was in full flow and the coatbag idea took a back seat. I talked about the project to lots of people but without visuals. I searched through the internet and sites such as Pinterest to see what was out there, but apart from fashionista products for campers and festival party goers there really was nothing to refer to.​

In 2009 I was headhunted by Swansea University to set up a Leadership and Management programme and embracing the opportunity for change, my son and moved back to Swansea where I took up the role. In 2011/12 I closed down the manufacturing unit in Vietnam and started up a small workshop making Noonoo and flags from my home, employing one machinist and focussing on my new full time job, away from manufacturing and running my own business.  After two years I relaunched my father's flag making business and in 2013 moved the machines and newly recruited staff into a town centre workshop and in 2014 re-incorporated the business as a social enterprise.​

Fast forward to 2015, I was asked as Entrepreneur in Residence and Business Role Model at UWTSD to present a ‘real’ final year business project assignment to students at UWTSD. I dug out my notes on what became known as ROOF and commissioned and worked with eight students to produce a comprehensive feasibility study including market research (engaging with target end user and client base), financial projections and funding routes on the viability of the coatbag.

I decided to specifically target rough sleepers and those without permanent accommodation and so ROOF was born.

​Through the student research it became apparent that there were two other similar projects in the early stages of set up around the World, namely the Empowerment Plan in Detroit USA and the other, Sheltersuit in Enschede Holland.

Both have a social mission but both rely heavily on donations in kind or financial contributions. Both have a similar idea to my own - to produce a garment for the homeless and give employment to the homeless but neither goes further than that basic principle of commercialisation and revenue generating sales of the product. RDM has never had a grant and only ever run the business on sales revenue so as this is what I know and understand, this is how ROOF has been built.  

*picture for illustration purposes only.  Persons not connected.

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