Grassroots Rucksack Project returns to help homeless through winter

The Rucksack Project has returned for another winter across the UK, to help homeless people through the harsh season ahead.

From humble beginnings in 2009, the grassroots organisation has gathered momentum, and spread all over the country.

Through a network of local volunteers, all coordinated through social media, the project has given thousands of rucksacks filled with essentials to those who need them.

The 2015 campaign launched last week and, as every year, organisers will encourage people to donate a backpack filled with items that could prove essential to the wellbeing of a homeless person during the Christmas months.

Recommended items include a large rucksack with a sleeping bag, a woolly hat, gloves, scarf and underwear.

INSP interviewed the founder of the project, Bristol native Mathew White, about how a simple idea grew to become a lifeline for so many living on the streets.

Mathew White Photo: Fields of Light photography

Why did you decide to start this project?

I’m just an average bloke who grew up on a council estate. I had a good upbringing and I have never been on the streets. Because of my upbringing I am quite empathic with people.

I can’t bear to see suffering and one day near Christmas, broke with only 12 quid in my pocket, I was out thinking, ‘oh god, what am I going to get people for Christmas?’ when I saw this man looking really lost, wrapped in a blanket, freezing, looking so sad. At his eye level were the nice printed bags and the logos from people doing their Christmas shopping.

This moment struck such a chord with me. I have not disliked Christmas, but the cynic in me just looked at what Christmas is about: the season of goodwill. In that moment I just thought, not one of you people gives a damn that this guy who really needs some goodwill is sat there freezing, whilst you’re worrying about what you’re going to get your family for Christmas.

That moment was a nexus of ideas all coming together. My family are really good people and I knew they wouldn’t mind if I didn’t give them some rubbish present. So instead I bought this man a rucksack.

How has the project taken off since then?

It has been a manic period of my life with the project becoming such a big success. The main Facebook page has coming up on 16,000 people on it, and every year around 50 events are organised across the UK.

Some people create their own events and have their own Facebook page so I reckon there must now be close to 100,000 people taking part, which is fantastic!

Has the project had an impact on you?

Well, someone I will never forget is a young man called Daniel Gauntlett over in Kent who was in his mid-30s and had mental health issues. He was trying to get into an old derelict bungalow to get out of a particularly bad snowy spell a few years ago and to get some sleep through the night.

Unfortunately, neighbours called the police and he was moved on. He came back later that night, to set up a temporary shelter on the porch. That night he succumbed to pneumonia.

I happened to see an online article about this and commented on it saying what a shame that someone from the project didn’t donate a pack that could have saved his life. The next day I had a message from his 15-year-old daughter who thanked me and asked if there was anything she could do to help the project. It turned out she was now in care after losing her dad.

We make too many assumptions about people living on the street, that they don’t have families or children. This man was not helped by society or his local council so he fell through the net.

This knock-on effect, to get this email from a 15-year-old girl who had lost her dad and is now in care was heart breaking. This spurs me on to do more: we can make a difference.

Since the project started in 2009, have you noticed a change in homelessness?

With everything that is going on right now, such as cuts to benefits, this project is seeing more and more people on the streets, even families with children. To me, in a first world country, this is absolutely criminal.

I am no expert on homelessness, but I have learned what I have learnt as I go along from talking to the people we give rucksacks to. I am worried about where these people are going to go and live. The problem is getting worse, and the help people give to the project is very much still needed.

How can people get involved?

Go to our Facebook page or our website. You’ll see that there are so many levels that people can get involved at.

If you feel like you can’t make a pack then you can simply press the share button on Facebook. That one tiny link and action of sharing it with one person could lead to an entire new branch of people who come forward and help this project, which ultimately could help a homeless person through winter.