From sleeping rough to Freshers’ Week via the school of second chances

Martin Herron meets a rough sleeper turned Exeter undergraduate with the aid of Northern College’s access course

September 18, 2014

After leaving school in Doncaster at 16 with no qualifications, Tim Perkins spent much of the next 30 years living on the streets. This week, the 46-year-old is starting a degree in philosophy at the University of Exeter after turning his life around.

He credits one moment of clarity for kick-starting his change of course.

“I was laid in a doorway and I was really convinced I was going to die,” he said. “And I just realised I needed to find a way out.”

The following day he contacted the Northern College for Residential and Community Adult Education, an adult education college near Barnsley.

“I chose them because it was residential so I knew I’d have somewhere to live. I just rang up and they gave me an interview,” Mr Perkins said. “I never had any second thoughts. It was about survival – I just knew I had to get out of the way I was living.”

That way of life included two six-month jail terms for offences involving what he describes as “aggressive” behaviour, and nearly three decades of living rough.

“It started when I was 16 when I hitched down to London to get work on building sites and I just sort of drifted into it,” he said, adding that he later became involved with protest movements around issues such as the poll tax and the Newbury bypass.

Mr Perkins’ time on the streets, mainly in Doncaster, Durham and Inverness, left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and problems arising from alcohol abuse.

“I’ve got scars on my face from being kicked by people just coming out of the pub who want to attack someone vulnerable,” he said.

“The main thing I remember from being homeless is being tired all the time,” he continues. “You never really sleep or relax. You can’t afford to – you have to be alert all the time because there’s always a threat that something bad will happen or someone will attack you.”

But Mr Perkins said he always felt he had the potential to do more with his life.

“Even when I was on the streets I knew I had an intellect. But I never really got the chance to use it – life throws things at you and you have to survive.”

Adjusting to a new life of study was difficult, he admitted.

“Northern College was fantastic; they took me on trust and I’m very grateful for that. But it certainly wasn’t easy. I had cabin fever at first – I felt like I’d lost my freedom. Having a structure to the day was hard and, to be honest, it still is.”

At Northern, Mr Perkins took an Access to Higher Education Diploma – a qualification that allows mature students without school qualifications to reach university – in humanities and social sciences.

“I came off the alcohol and just worked solidly for a year. Even when I was on the streets I’d been thinking about university, and halfway through the course some of the lecturers said I should apply. I wasn’t sure I was good enough but I thought I’d give it a go.”

After applying to Durham, Lancaster and Exeter universities, he settled on a place in the South West to study philosophy.

“Obviously I’m pleased and excited but there’s a huge amount of trepidation too – I’m 46, I’m grey, basically I’m buggered. I don’t know what the other students will make of me or how I’ll handle them. I find everyday life hard enough.

“But I don’t want to go back to the streets – being an academic and doing research looks much better than that.”

Liz Murphy, the university’s head of student support services, said that the university had provision to meet Mr Perkins’ needs should he require support.

“Although we have lots of young people coming straight from school, we also have a sizeable number of mature students,” she said. “We try to encourage people to hook up with similar people to help develop a sense of belonging.”

Ms Murphy added that he might also want to become part of the university’s community work programme.

“Tim’s turned his life around pretty quickly and people who have done things like that often have things they want to share. We have a strong ethos around volunteering at Exeter which he can be part of if he wants. I’m not saying he’ll want to, but the opportunity is there.”

Meanwhile, Jill Westerman, the principal of Northern College, said that the college was “thrilled” by his success. “The college mission is to transform lives, and Tim seized the chance to come to live and study in Northern College for a year,” Ms Westerman said. “He became a valued member of our college community. All his tutors wish him every success in his future studies.”

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