After a stint in jail, Haydn Lee Jessop turned his life around. Now he is working to create a ‘container community’ in Leeds to support homeless people. Laura Reid reports.
Haydn Lee Jessop stepped out of his cell at Armley Prison and paused as the reality set in. He had, until that point, avoided jail – though by his own admission now, seven years later, he had spent much of his late teenage years living a life of spiralling criminal activity.
He candidly discusses a past of substance abuse; of drug dealing, street robberies and fraud. For half a decade, a pattern of rebelling and instigating dominated his being.
He doesn’t shy away from that, any of it. Now, he says, clean since 2013 and a father-of-two, he is living proof of how life can change for people, even in the most challenging of circumstances.
Through his Leeds-based Community Interest Company, Vulnerable Citizen Support (VCS), Haydn is helping others to rebuild their lives, supporting the most destitute by providing food parcels to struggling individuals and families, helping people with welfare matters, and assisting those with accommodation needs to find or keep a roof over their heads.
The organisation is also days off completing the kitting out of its first container home and Haydn hopes, by Christmas, that it can temporarily house someone without a place to live.
“It would be incredible if we could make someone’s Christmas by getting them off the streets and into the container home, giving them a fresh start for the new year,” he says.
After seeing a friend in Bristol working to create a community of self-contained flats out of shipping containers to help address the city’s homelessness situation, Haydn decided early last year that he wanted to try to replicate the model in Leeds.
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He launched a campaign in the hope of bringing the local community on board. And, though the project stalled amid the coronavirus pandemic, it is thanks to the kindness of businesses, tradespeople and individuals, who have given their support through fundraising donations and by providing services and materials, that the first container home is now almost ready to welcome a resident.
“We’re about to create a chance for somebody else,” Haydn says, “and that is down to the people who have come forward and contributed to the project, the people who have donated labour and materials.”
The idea is that the container will provide self-contained living space for a homeless person, providing them with a roof over their head until they can move on to a more permanent home. During that time, VCS will provide employability training, support looking for jobs, and plans to work with other agencies that can help with a permanent housing solution.
For 28-year-old Haydn, who lives in Farsley, the ultimate aim is to create a community of ten or more of the container homes over the next three to five years in the hope of making a difference to homelessness in Leeds.
A report by the Leeds Safeguarding Adults Board and Safer Leeds Executive earlier this year noted that more than 440 individuals were recorded sleeping rough in the city at least once in 2019.
“We want to offer people a second shot at a stable life,” Haydn says. “Often someone has just taken one wrong turn but once you’re homeless or sleeping on the streets it’s virtually impossible to rebuild without support. These container homes will provide temporary respite, which combined with our help to get a job or rehabilitation support, will help people to permanently rebuild their lives.”
Haydn believes the initiative will offer homeless people an alternative pathway of support and will help to take the pressure off other organisations and services. “Some of these guys want to clock themselves into hospital on a night just to keep warm,” he says, “or get arrested just to get a meal. Hopefully we’ll see those statistics dropping because of what everyone who is contributing to this project is creating.”
The first container to be converted into a home was donated by Leeds-based Northern Containers. VCS is now looking for a site to house it and is calling out to anyone who could lease the organisation some land and provide a suitable plot, at least for the short-term.
A site will also need to be found if Haydn’s vision for a container home village and community, with on-site support workers, is to become a reality. He hopes this first home will act as a prototype, inspiring more people and businesses to back the project, including through corporate sponsorship of a container, which can be converted into a home at a cost of around £15,000. It’s a small price, Haydn believes, for “saving somebody’s life”.
The short stint he spent in prison in 2013 was a turning point for him, marking an opportunity for new beginnings after his life began to spiral in his teens. He’d been on an alternative learning programme for the equivalent of his high school education, gaining a bricklaying and tiling qualification by the age of 15. “But that didn’t interest me, crime interested me,” he reflects.
His two months of jail time, ahead of his 22nd birthday, was finally the spark he needed to change his path. “When I came out of my pad for the first time, I thought is this the environment that I want to be in for the next 10 to 15 years? If I come out here and go back [to what I was doing], I’m going to end up in this environment for a long time. It was a wake up call and a perspective change in my life completely,” he reflects.
Haydn was given a business mentor after leaving prison through a St Giles Trust programme, secured a job in powder coating in Ilkley and cut ties with his former life. But it hasn’t been plain sailing – businesses he launched in PAT testing and removals were both unsuccessful – and embarking on his own rebuilding journey is what inspired him to help others.
In 2016, Haydn was among the campaigners behind the first Leeds ‘tent city’ camp, set up to highlight the issue of homelessness. He went on to run a soup kitchen, feeding up to 100 homeless people every week. In November last year, he quit his job and founded VCS in January, with the backing of Leeds-based Servo Group, which had also supported his work over the previous three years.
VCS opened a welfare centre in Armley shortly before the pandemic took hold, providing a safe place for homeless and vulnerable adults to access a hot drink and a chat, and offering people help with housing needs, mental health referrals and obtaining welfare support. Since the first lockdown in March, it has also been running a food bank anda baby bank, in partnership with Florrie’s Army, supporting those who are struggling.
“I believe in karma,” Haydn says. “I was a bad lad, I’ve been in jail and I came out and changed my life. I want to help other people now. I believe in giving something back.”
He paid tribute to Jordan Coupland and Trevor Waterhouse in particular for their work on the container home over the past few weeks. Anyone who can offer land, services or cash donations to support the container village project can contact Haydn by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org