A social enterprise that’s set to blast the stigma that often surrounds people with challenging backgrounds out of the water is turning lives around in Hastings.
Allan’s Army is the brain child of entrepreneur and Chief Executive of property developers, the Flint Group, Jeff Kirby.
Jeff and the team at Flint established Allan’s Army as a community interest company. It is a workforce of people from extremely challenging backgrounds brought into meaningful and structured work, to assist them in regaining self respect and to provide for their own basic needs.
Jeff says taking difficult, troubled people who aren’t in a good place and helping them get to a far better place through meaningful activity has a positive effect. “The fact this works shouldn’t be too surprising, “ he said.
“People crave purpose. We are helping people who aren’t open to conventional approaches find a way to make positive changes to their lives; one that makes most sense to them.”
Allan Morrie, known as ‘Big Al’, met Jeff shortly after the Flint group purchased the derelict Observer Building in Hastings. He began by helping to clear the building and now leads his ‘army’ of ex-offenders as they continue to refurbish the iconic structure, transforming it into one of the town’s main community hubs.
Allan, 39, like all the members of Allan’s Army had a colourful past before turning his life around. Expelled from school aged 13 he then went to a boarding school for troubled lads. Two years later he went to South Africa to see his dad who had moved there when Allan was 11.
“This messed my head up a bit because my father and I were really close,” he said. “I came back and was meant to go to college to learn how to brick lay then emigrate back out there but it never happened.
“I started getting into trouble at a young age, always getting arrested.”
A few years later Allan got a job labouring then moved to Portsmouth and joined a travelling fun-fair. “I was travelling up and down the South Coast and in a new town every week. This was right up my street because I met a different girl every week. When I left I moved to Brighton and worked in a pub which I really enjoyed.
“I got into a pub fight and ended up in jail for the first time which I hated. When I was released I moved to Hastings and got a job as a plaster’s labourer. I did this for 4 years and loved it. I moved to Eastbourne, met Jeni and had Elliese my daughter. She is the sunlight of my life.”
Whilst in Eastbourne Allan started getting into a lot of trouble. “I was hanging around with the wrong crowd.. got into drug use..in and out of prison.
“Then I moved back to Hastings met Jeff and Allan’s Army was born. Allan’s Army has saved my life because now I’ve direction in my life and a nice one bedroom flat.
“Coming to work every day gives me something to get up for. Now I volunteer for my local church have my job and things are looking up for me. I still struggle with addiction problems but I live one day at a time and Allan’s Army is going from strength to strength.”
Ex-offenders who are part of Alan’s Army are offered housing help, daily pay and pastoral care. Jeff says many ex-offenders usually have no home and no address on release and therefore no access to any benefits for three weeks. “They revert to old lifestyles and old contacts,” he said. “And before they get anywhere near finding a new home or a job, they quickly get dragged back into old ways - often involving substance abuse and crime - the same cycle which on average re-occurs at least seven more times in their lives.”
Allan’s Army member Jay, who was placed into care aged just four months, says he identifies with this pattern. “I got fostered out which never worked out and I went back into care. Then I started getting into trouble, then got on drugs, committing crime to afford that habit. Then of course I went to prison.
“Now things are looking up and I’m looking for a place to live. I’ve have had a lot of problems in life like being in the care system, drugs, crime, drink and in out of prison. But now I have seen the light now. With a job I’ve got a good start and things are looking up for me and I am walking around with a smile on my face.”
John, or ‘Big John’ is another member of Allan’s Army. Born in Glasgow John, 52 years ‘young’, moved to Hastings three years ago.
“I spent most of my working life as a dustman,” he said. “I have five kids, all boys. I have worked for Allan’s Army for the last 3 months. I hope it continues to go on the way things are as I am happy working here.
“If it was not for Allan’s Army I’d probably still be on the street, homeless or in prison. I am just grateful for the opportunity to be given the change to better myself and my way of living.
Since it started earlier this year Alan’s Army has given jobs to 25 ex-offenders, only one has returned to offending, that’s 4 per cent as opposed to the national rate of 67 per cent, which Jeff says is not bad going.
“Do other property developers think we’re crazy? I certainly hope so,” he said. “I want Flint to have a purpose beyond profit, and that purpose is people.”
Jeff says that he and his team at Flint believe that offering security to those in Allan’s Army leads to a strong feeling of trust, which enables people to work together in mutually beneficial ways. “Selfishness might work briefly for individuals, but not long term and not for communities,” he said. “In the end, the groups that survive and prosper are those that can cooperate, working together toward mutual wellbeing.”
Jeff says that’s why there are very few rules within Flint; instead he trusts people to be self-managing and self-motivating.
“It doesn’t always work out, but for the vast majority it’s the break they’ve been searching for, and they respond accordingly. Do good, be nice, be open, break the box, be amazing! I want to detonate a nuclear bomb of goodness. What if there was another way? What if money wasn’t the main metric? What if doing good was the overriding imperative? In the end, Flint’s mission is simple – create positive change through ethical property development.
“All we want to do is change the world. No point aiming too low, is there?”