‘My van was home’ – formerly homeless veteran sets up global fundraising challenge

Stevenage resident John Allison poses while serving with the Royal Engineers in Bosnia in 1997. Picture: John Allison

Stevenage resident John Allison poses while serving with the Royal Engineers in Bosnia in 1997. Picture: John Allison - Credit: Archant

A Stevenage resident who served in the army for more than 20 years has shared his own experience of homelessness, ahead of the launch of his global challenge that is trying to raise awareness for rough sleeping.

In Bosnia, John witnessed firsthand the destruction and displacement that war brings. Picture: John Allison

In Bosnia, John witnessed firsthand the destruction and displacement that war brings. Picture: John Allison - Credit: Archant

It’s clear from speaking to Stevenage’s John Watson Allison that he’s lived a remarkable life.

His highs include touring the world with the Royal Engineers, and later the intelligence corps.

Among the lows would be the loss of close family members, being diagnosed with anxiety disorder and his time living in his van just a few years ago.

Rough sleeping was something John witnessed first-hand while on active duty, and was something that he went through himself for six months in 2018.

For six months, John called this tiny van home. He admits he was lucky to "have his steel shelter". Picture: John Allison

For six months, John called this tiny van home. He admits he was lucky to "have his steel shelter". Picture: John Allison - Credit: Archant

He says he felt “destined” to join the army, even from a young age, as he had a love of the outdoors and friends who wanted to experience the world.

During his tours of Bosnia, Iraq and Palestine, John saw the devastation and displacement that war can bring.

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John said: “Throughout my time in the army I frequently came across people whose lives had been devastated by conflict.

“When I served in Baghdad, I saw residents being killed by bombs, and being forcibly evicted.

“In Bosnia, I worked in abandoned villages where, chances are, the inhabitants had been ethnically cleansed.

“What shocked me was while we were checking for booby traps and mines, you would enter rooms that had clearly been untouched since then. The people had literally just been told to leave with minutes, rotting clothes, cutlery and such were frozen in time.

“That’s something I’ll never forget.”

It was partly through this experience that John learned the real value of a place to call home, a safe hub to return to every day that provided shelter, warmth and protection.

But what happened when John left the army helped to shape his worldview further.

He set-up StreetGym, a form of urban circuit training that works to help people realise they can turn everyday streets and parks into their own gym.

But while trying to navigate the challenges of self-employment, bereavement and being diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder, John says he struggled to “make sense of it all”.

“When I was deployed all around the world, I always knew in the back of my mind that I had a safe base to come back to, whether that was my barracks or a family home,” John said.

“But once I left the military, having that home and stable base became even more important in many ways.

“I was struggling and burned myself out by working through all hours of the night. I was getting heart palpitations and my brother had recently passed and I hadn’t acknowledged that yet. Long story short, the wheels came off.

“The experience culminated in me parking in my local A&E car park overnight and sleeping in my van, because I felt safer there. If I had a heart attack, at least I’d be outside A&E!”

In March 2018, after being made redundant and moving more than ten times, John took to living in his van for six months.

“I built myself a wooden bed and a shelf, drove down to Worthing and that was that. It felt like I was leaving society and my van was my home.

“Unless you’re immersed in that lifestyle you don’t realise how many other people are experiencing hidden homelessness, it’s really incredible.

“Ever since I left the army, the van was my one constant. I had been renting but I felt the threat of eviction hanging over my head. The van was the one shelter I had that really made me feel safe.

“It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was living on my own terms. Without a stable place to call home, I know how difficult it can be to get yourself off the ground.

“People may be surprised, but things can spiral out of control very quickly. My message would be that homelessness really could happen to anyone.”

Eventually, a friend of a friend invited John to live on his sofa, and that would mark the end of his time living in the van.

All of these experiences led John to set up the Under a Tarp challenge, so what is it?

Under a Tarp is a global movement that anyone can join in order to raise funds and awareness of the homeless charity of your choice, according to the website.

Anyone who can get out and spend 12 hours ‘under a tarpaulin’ are encouraged to do so and share their experience with others as part of this challenge.

“We want people to briefly experience the true hardship of what it’s like to be homeless in winter,” John says.

“You’re stepping into the shoes of a homeless person for the day. All you have to do is spend one night (or more), under a tarp or homemade version, in order to raise funds for your nominated homeless charity.”

The organisation are sharing handy guides on how to quickly and safely set up a tarpaulin shelter from almost anywhere, via their social media and YouTube accounts.

There are a number of health and safety pointers that the team have also established on their website, which you can view on: www.underatarp.co.ukJohn’s movement wants to “unify” homelessness charities and support by amplifying their voice across the world.

It’s easy to sign up – pick a charity you want to raise awareness of. Shoot a video or take some pictures of yourself sleeping (safely!) outside for a night, and use #UnderATarpChallenge and tag the team on social media.

For more information, visit www.underatarp.co.uk

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