About Mooch

Even for a hard man like Mooch, living on the streets was scary. But when kindness came from an unexpected source, he was able to turn his life around and now helps other people facing homelessness

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For Mooch, a life lived on the wrong side of the law led to rough sleeping and prison. But the skills that saw him through his youth came good following support from the most unexpected of sources.

It was the kindness of prison officers that saw Keith Ashley – more fondly known as Mooch to his friends and acquaintances – start his first real job at the age of 60. Having lived his life as a “thief and villain for over 50 years”, his last stint in prison coincided with childhood friend Jimmy’s struggle with cancer, while both were incarcerated at HMP Preston.

“I used to help people find a bit of graft, as I’d made so much easy money.”

Supporting Mooch through the process, it was the “screws”, as he fondly remembers them, who ensured he could be with his friend through his illness. Having proved himself as a “yellow jumper” – an anti-bullying role awarded to inmates with the ability to command respect and soothe tensions – he was allowed to spend what he assumed were Jimmy’s final moments on the ward.

Both times, as it turns out. Weeks later, Mooch learned his friend had been resuscitated and died at a later date, but his reaction was wholly unexpected. “I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t snapping. After Jimmy died, I was calm,” he says.

“It was two things. They were expecting me to kick off, but I had a good pad mate, who I got along with and could talk to if I needed to. The second thing was they’d meet me every morning coming out of my cell. Prison was chaotic – it’s noise 24/7 – and they’d check in on me throughout the day. I needed peace, and they gave it to me.”

Prone to aggressive responses, Mooch took months to realise that prison officers, known to him as Sue, Mr Davidson and Mr Avichi, were the reason. They worked together to keep him calm. In the context of an “us and them” environment, he points out that “not everyone is what you imagine them to be. They looked out for me.”

The larger than life personality that endeared him to his jailers was shaped on the streets of Blackley, north Manchester and through his involvement in crime. Unexpectedly, those same skills came full circle when he was inspired to help others the way he had been helped: people struggling to get their lives back on track having found themselves homeless and without a safety net, no matter their experiences.

“It’s important for me to to help, whether I’d been homeless before prison or not. Homelessness is nothing new, and I’ve just found myself in a position to help. It’s about being there for vulnerable or disadvantaged people – I used to help people find a bit of graft if they were on hard times, especially as I’d made so much easy money.”

Following his final release from prison in 2014 rough sleeping – avoiding bail hostels where fellow ex-criminals were likely to ignite old behaviour – initially seemed the only option. Even for a tough character like Mooch, living on the streets was an eye-opener. “I can stand up for myself, but it was scary.”

But his probation officer worked with the head of Newbury House – a supported accommodation unit in south Manchester – and he was housed there, albeit as a high risk resident on account of his violent past.

“There are so many reasons people can find themselves in that position. We used to call people bums. Sometimes, it’s safer or better to be rough sleeping than where you’re at. Before you know, you’re sat on the streets, and you don’t know why it happens so quick.

“It’s extremely cliquey, and easy to fall into drinking and taking drugs. You have to know the craic. I used to sleep in the day and walk around. You’re on your own, people are looking down on you – unintentionally – and everyone thinks you’re just a druggy or an alcoholic. People spit on you. You feel safer when you get into the homeless community.”

Karen, a volunteer co-ordinator from Step Together – a non-profit organisation that helps people excluded from society – referred him to the Manchester homeless charity the Mustard Tree. After much encouragement, he joined its Freedom Project, which offers work experience across the onsite shop, warehouse and office over 20 weeks. His eyes were opened to other ways of being.

Working alongside refugees and being exposed to the LGBT community, experiencing other cultures and meeting people from other disadvantaged circumstances inspired Mooch to turn his talents to helping rather than harming. Building on his role as a peacemaker in prison, his new attitude opened up unexpected opportunities.

This time around it was Karen – “turning his smirk into a smile” – and Mustard Tree team member Jez who opened new doors, inviting Mooch to take part in shaping Manchester’s Homelessness Charter.

The charter is a cross-sector partnership aiming to reduce homelessness by involving those experiencing it and Mooch chaired a fundraising and campaigning action group. Making use of his natural talents, he landed his first paid gig.

“It needs people working together, doesn’t it? People pledging and then going and doing something about it. It can sometimes be overwhelming, working in homelessness, because it takes time for things to happen and make a difference.”

Mentored by Jez, Mooch learnt “how to listen without aggression”, and in the course of shaping the response to homelessness in Manchester, shifted from exerting his influence to asking questions and understanding action. The caring nature nurtured during his near four-year stretch was put to good use in encouraging others to give in alternative ways.

“We rely on the charities picking up the pieces. The government don’t offer enough help. When you rock up to Barnabus or the Booth Centre, they get it and you feel relieved. They understand if you’ve got problems. They know what kind of help you need, if you’re ready to move into a house, or you just need to speak to other people. We need more frontline support workers doing the graft.”

Co-chairing the partnership’s Big Change action group with the head of the housing association he lived in, Mooch’s ability to attract and channel money came in handy. Their collaboration saw the fund develop to ensure donations go directly to the people looking to get back on their feet.

Personally managing every request for funding under £100, Mooch builds relationships and supports each person on a case-by-case basis. “I’ve always loved helping people, and it’s this that gives me a buzz these days. It’s money that helps people when they can’t find help anywhere else.”

Requests come in for everything from bus tickets for a hospital appointment and new interview shoes to deposits for people’s new housing and buying second-hand furniture to make it a home. Every application is made through an individual’s support worker.

Two years later, with over £250,000 raised, £170,000 has already been distributed to people experiencing homelessness by the Big Change. Hundreds of people across the city have now been supported to create secure and stable futures for themselves, as Mooch builds his own life in the sector that supported him.

“I’m a good lad. I’m so proud of myself and what I’ve come from. What we need now though is jobs. We need businesses to understand that people might have challenges, but to give them a chance. We need them to work with the charities to help people get back on their feet, so they can pay rent. People can help themselves.”

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