When Geoff Shepherd’s two small boys asked a man on a Leeds bridge why he had no home it inspired their dad to help him and other homeless people. Catherine Scott reports
They saw a man sleeping rough on the bridge and, in a child’s unique way, the boys wanted to know why the man had no home.
“We got talking to the man, who was called Kevin, and in the end I offered him some money,” explains businessman Geoff.
“He refused to take it, instead saying it was Christmas and so I should spend it on the boys.
“I wasn’t expecting that and when I insisted he took the money he reached into his bag and brought out a Christmas card, which he wrote to us to say thank you.
“When we got home the boys kept asking about Kevin and it got me thinking. I decided that there must be something I could do to help him and other homeless people like him this Christmas.”
Geoff came up the idea of Ho Ho Homeless at Christmas as he set up a Go Fund Me site that night.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do but I put it out on social media and the response was amazing.
“I think I knew through my business contacts that a number of organisations would support it but I have been getting donations of £5, £10 and £20 from complete strangers. They have no connection to me but just connect with the story.
In less than two weeks Geoff has raised more than £2,000 in cash which he has spent creating winter warmer packs which will be handed out to 60 of Leeds’s homeless. He has also received more £1,000 worth of new winter clothes.
“Somebody has donated 200 jackets and coats. And we have even had things donated for the homeless people’s dogs,” said Geoff, who is chairman and founder of The Yorkshire Mafia
“Many of these people have drug and alcohol related problems and so I didn’t want to just hand out cash as they would more than likely spend it on drugs or alcohol. I wanted to do something which would just make their Christmas a bit more comfortable and a bit warmer.
“We take things like cleaning our teeth for granted,” says Geoff. “But try not cleaning your teeth for a week and see how it feels.
“We now hold the record for the most money spent in one transaction in Poundland at Crown Point in Leeds. Initially curious as to why we had 60 tubes of toothpaste and 60 pairs of gloves in a basket, the store manager (Richard) and the man who served us (Joe) were both brilliant,” explains Geoff.
“It isn’t just about giving money, I wanted people to give their time and to really get people involved.”
Staff at AQL in Leeds were joined by other local businesses, Geoff’s sons and Kevin yesterday to wrap all the goodie bags which contain essentials such as toothpaste and brush, sanitary wear, hats, gloves, jumpers and coats as well as a few Christmas treats. The packs are being distributed by Leeds homeless charity Simon on the Streets.
“I am aware of the homeless situation in Leeds and have done some sponsored cycle rides from Leeds to Paris for Simon on the Streets. What we are doing is for Christmas and the winter, what agencies like Simon on the Streets do is a full-time job. People are homeless all year round, not just at Christmas.
The campaign has proved so successful that Geoff now plans to expand it to Sheffield after Christmas and then next winter to Huddersfield, Bradford, Hull, Manchester and Birmingham.
“It isn’t just about Christmas, it is cold throughout the winter and it is so easy for us to help make life just a little less tough,” says Geoff.
“What I really want is for an agency like Simon on the Streets to take on what I have started. They know best what is needed and how to distribute it.”
Kevin is now no longer homeless thanks to Geoff who has found him accommodation for a month and paid for it.
“When I told him about my mini campaign last week he was very distracted and didn’t look well at all. It was clear he had much bigger more immediate problems on his mind. He had been told he wasn’t allowed into the city centre and if he did he would be prosecuted.
“The city council has adopted a blanket approach when it comes to beggars in the city centre.
“But none of the homeless are there by choice, no one chooses to be homeless. They have all had something damaging happen to them and they make bad life choices that means they have nowhere to live.
“Sleeping rough is dangerous. Just the other day Kevin was beaten up trying to help some young people who were being attacked – that’s the type of person he is.
“This ruling by Leeds City Council, where homeless people are now under threat of also being criminalised, isn’t really helpful and makes it worse for everyone.
“Kevin was really worried about what he was going to do and how he was going to survive. Now he has a month to try to sort out his housing application and try to get his life back on track. Kevin is dyslexic and that has caused some of his problems as other people have filled in his application forms for him and got them wrong and so he has been turned down.
“ I saw him a few days ago and he looked like a different person. He’d had a shower and shave and really cleaned himself up.”
Kevin has become a constant source of conversation in the Shepherd household
“Kevin is on his own and he has invited us for Christmas and we might well pop in and say hi. The boys ask after him all the time.”