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Tony Wood of
Outcast Foundation

"I’ve done all these things in my life, so why am I so dissatisfied? It was then that I had the revelation that what I needed to do was use all these skills that I’d acquired to help other people."

Rising from the polluted, murky depths of London’s underground system at Victoria Station’s Cardinal Place exit, you can often be greeted by the soothing stream of a classical symphony emanating from a tiny speaker and a sunny smile atop the distinctive red tabard of a Big Issue vendor. Tony creates a calming contrast to the morning rush battling beneath us, which no doubt helps his sales enormously. It’s the attention to detail that is incredibly noticeable, speaking several languages his ears are always pricked, ready to offer aid or directions to confused tourists with limited English.

Our paths crossed on a shoot for the Big Issue magazine, it was meant to be a quick one but I was struck by his calm demeanour and philosophical understanding of life and we began to chat.

It’s a common misconception that everyone who sells the Big Issue is homeless, but in Tony’s case it is true. However that didn’t stop him from giving me a book to read which pertained to one of our conversations, nor did it discourage him from donating loose change to someone who came asking whilst we were together.

Just those few nuggets of generosity made it no surprise when he told me about the charity, Outcast Foundation, he is dedicated to setting up as a means of tackling global poverty.

Tony Wood of Outcast Foundation

Tell us briefly about your background and what led to the formation of the Outcast Foundation?

I grew up in the industrial northeast of England, a relatively poor part of the country. In those days a good education was open to almost anybody and I managed to get in to a grammar school and eventually went to Sheffield University where I studied classics and music.

This didn’t help me get into a vocational career, so after university I was unemployed for the first time in my life. For a short period of time I was homeless, it wasn’t for very long but it was my first encounter with it. Eventually I was offered a job as a trainee computer programmer and then made my name as a software systems developer. I moved into marketing and training and this took me all over the world setting up agencies. I didn’t think anything of getting on a plane at a days notice. I had two houses and was renting another one at the time.

After a while I set up my own business working as a consultant engineer in the energy industry. It really took off. I was working 7 days a week, 14 hours a day, and after 12 years of hard work I decided that I’d earned enough money to get out and take a sort of early retirement. I was married to a Polish lady at the time and despite us getting a divorce, we decided to buy a chateau near Carcassonne in France together as a business venture. It was built in the 13th century and used to be a hotel so it had fifteen bedrooms, but it was a real fixer upper. We spent lots of money renovating it, but then there was a collapse in property prices and when it came to the right time, we couldn’t sell it.

My ex-wife had to return to England after a while, she could no longer afford to stay on in france as our money had run out. So it was left to me to try and sell the chateau which took at least two years. During that time I was on my own and I didn’t see many people. I went out every couple of weeks to get food and a new book. I was living in a little room at the top that I could heat with a radiator but it had a fantastic view over the Pyrenees.

I was living a kind of monastic life, but I was surrounded by books. I was reading, studying, reflecting, and contemplating my life so far. I thought, I’ve gone from a musician to computer engineer, to petrochemical design engineer, to marketing professional, to art dealer, I’ve been all over the world, I’ve done all these things in my life, so why am I so dissatisfied? It was then that I had the revelation that what I needed to do was use all these skills that I’d acquired to help other people.

Eventually I did manage to sell the chateau but at a much lower price, we more or less got our money back but that was it. I decided to move to Mallorca, where I’d already had business ties previously. I started working with a few others and we founded a branch of Lions Clubs International [the American philanthropic organisation].

I learned a lot from this but I still felt I wasn’t doing enough and by this time I had a Romanian fiancee who was living in Italy, although we had originally met on the French Riviera. I’d never before thought about moving to Romania, but I thought it might be a place in the world where I could do some good. She had family there and could arrange accommodation so I got on a plane to Nice, caught a train across the border into Italy, and from there we made the drive north through Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia.

There’s still extreme poverty in eastern Europe. I learned a lot about what it’s like to live there. When people ask, I say that living on the streets of London is like ‘Club Med’ compared to being on the streets in eastern Europe over the winter. There are a few charities there, but not many in comparison to here. You’ve got temperatures going down to minus 30, deep snow, handicapped people who are unable to get wheelchairs dying on the streets. When you see that it puts into perspective how lucky British people are without realising it. This is probably one of the easiest countries in the world to survive in if you have problems, because we have charities. Much of the rest of the world isn’t at all like this.

Dare I say it but ‘thankfully’, when I was on my way back to England, the airline who was bringing me back managed to lose my baggage. To save money I only had hand luggage but they had insisted I put my case in the hold and it just never turned up. I spent hours waiting for it to appear and it took me a day to get over the shock that I had nothing. My laptop was in there, my backup storage device, my family papers, parents birth and death certificates. Everything apart from what I had in my coat pocket, which was my phone and a notebook with some server passwords in, and my passport.

After a day it suddenly dawned on me that it had happened for a reason. The sequence of events was too fantastic for it to be an accident, there was too much bad luck. It felt like the universe was giving me a message to start my life again. So this was it. What could I do from nothing? A fantastic situation to be in.

 

From the shop - Difference: Outcast Foundation inspired print

This print is inspired by Outcast Foundation and the work they do to help the most marginalised members of our society. 20% of all the profits made from the sale of this print will go directly to Outcast Foundation to help them continue their great work. Visit the shop

It was a golden opportunity to do what I wanted. In fact I’d even thought about it before, to give up everything and start from nothing, but I hadn’t had the courage to do it.

If I was restarting life, I would need to earn some money so I started to sell The Big Issue which I’ve now built up into a substantial business which supports me, my fiancee and her two children. I’m fortunate that I can get help here and can live on a small amount of money myself, they don’t have that over there [in Romania] they don’t get any support whatsoever.

That was the origin of Outcast Foundation, to help those who were suffering poverty, and not just homeless people. Because homelessness is just one aspect of poverty. I’ve been able to work on the streets with these people, to study them for nearly a year now. It’s now over a year being homeless, 12 of those months on the streets in England, and I’ve met some amazing people. Those who are homeless and those who are caring and trying to help them. I’ve learnt what they want and what they really need, which is not always what they are getting. I want to help these people on a permanent basis and for me it’s not just guess work anymore because I see it first hand on a daily basis, day and night, I live it. I know I can help these people using the skills I’ve developed over a lifetime essentially and I’ll hopefully be able to train others to work with them and help them to get their lives back together in all aspects.

Poverty itself is stigmatised, living on the streets even more so, very few are going to be able to get back without assistance. Outcast Foundation is about looking at the fundamental issues and fixing them first which will give as many people as possible, not just in the UK but around the world, a means and the tools to help themselves.

"I want to help these people on a permanent basis and for me it’s not just guess work anymore because I see it first hand on a daily basis, day and night, I live it."

What are the biggest challenges going forward?

The next step is to have a physical base where we can do some serious work. To have an address where I can bring those with problems to talk to and work with them. Hopefully the word will spread from there. I want to build, for example, the Outcast Cafe concept which would put people from disadvantaged backgrounds together with, dare I say, normal people who have careers. The majority of the public near where I work are wonderful, they have not treated me like a second class citizen and they talk to me normally and they want to help. I want to put them all together to combine ideas and help solve wider problems, let it spread out from there. So next year hopefully one of the biggest projects will be the Outcast Cafe which I’m talking to various people about at the moment. Obviously there are financial implications for that, but I’ll keep going until it happens, I’m getting some great support, it just needs to concretise a bit.

What does success look like to you in terms of yourself or Outcast Foundation?

They are identical. I am the Foundation, the Foundation is me. It espouses my ideals – the relief of poverty.

Initial success is helping just one person, just the first person who walks through the door.  Ultimate success is helping everyone in the world, until there is no poverty remaining because there really is no need for it. There’s no shortage of money in the world, it’s just the distribution.

I’d like to address those in poverty and encourage them to not accept the state they’re in.

Sometimes charities can be unhelpful as they make people feel almost at home in their status of being helped by others. To some extent it takes away the self motivation to help oneself. What I’m interested in is training and explaining to them that they are worth something. Almost everyone can work, they’re intelligent human beings who just need to get started, but they don’t necessarily need to be given a job. This is because for some, they might not fit in to normal job roles or can struggle to work for someone else. They may need to start their own business and work for themselves, like I did myself. It’s not difficult, it’s just made to look difficult. Like everything, once you know how to do it, it’s easy.

It’s important to give people the tools, to put forward the notion that being an ‘outcast’ is a positive thing which ultimately motivates them to be themselves and to not be afraid of being unusual or unique but instead to use that as an advantage. No successful person in the world is like everybody else. If you copy the herd, you become the average, and the average is like mass mediocrity. Outcast Foundation is about encouraging people to take that step and it’s easier to take that step when you start from nothing.

The most powerful emotion that drives humanity is fear, which is why the insurance industry is so huge, whether that’s loss of valuables, loss of jobs, loss of life. But once you can overcome fear, anything is possible. Anything. Because it’s only fear that stops people doing what they ought to be doing.

I can tell you, without hesitation whatsoever, that I have no fear. Zero. It was getting that way over the last few years but actually living on the streets has cemented it. Fear of death is the ultimate and on the streets you live with it on a daily basis so I don’t even think about it anymore. From here the movement is entirely upwards.

"I am the Foundation, the Foundation is me. It espouses my ideals - the relief of poverty."

What characteristic do you most admire in others?

Perseverance.

A willingness never to give up. That’s how I met my fiancee, she was persevering to keep her children alive to feed them. That’s how I met her and why we’re still together. We have respect for each other and a similar motivation. We come from very different parts of the world, entirely different backgrounds but we share a common trait, to keep going against all adversity.

The reason most businesses fail is because people give up too soon. They often don’t have enough capital or give up just at the point where maybe they’re a few months from success. They give up too soon.

When you’re having a bad day, what cheers you up?

I’ve never had a bad day. I don’t remember the last time I was sad. Certainly not in the last year, not since I came back to the UK. Maybe not in the last five years.

If something bad happens, the worst you can get out of it is that it becomes a learning experience, which is a positive thing.

It’s an attitude to life. I had the basics when I was quite young, I think I realised very early on that being sad about a situation doesn’t help, in fact it makes you feel worse. It always irritates me when I see people trying to make me feel sad about things, saying ‘oh isn’t this awful, what’s happened to you is a bad thing’, I think ‘no, it’s awful for you maybe but for me it’s a really good learning experience’.

Since I became a more spiritual person in my 30’s, I’ve realised there’s a purpose for everything, you just have to find that purpose, and I usually can.

In your life, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I haven’t had a lot of good advice in my life. All the advice I have had has been the opposite of what I now personally feel it ought to have been. Things like ‘get a job’, ‘get married and have children’. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I’ve taken my lead from the successful people in the world, not the ones who are unsuccessful or who are having an ordinary life.

"If something bad happens, the worst you can get out of it is that it becomes a learning experience, which is a positive thing."

What would you tell your 21 year old self?

Be yourself.

Have the courage to be yourself and that’s it, you will succeed. Persevere and eventually things will work out well.

Is there a motto or principle you live by?

I’ve never actually formulated it in a sense like that. It’s almost like that line from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ you know, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Try to understand and empathise with people, I think it’s very important to do that. It’s what I’m getting slowly better at as my age progresses because trying to fit everyone into the same category of social or economic groups just doesn’t work, we’re all individuals and should be appreciated on our own terms.

What couldn’t you live without?

I might say God as the ultimate.

Whatever you want to call ‘God’, it’s the force that binds everyone together.

It’s faith in humanity.

I see God as a life force binding people together, not as a human being- that would be crazy- but as a universal energy force which keeps humanity together on this the planet. Possibly over the whole of the universe.

Religions tend to be little more than an explanation of how to describe that in terms people can relate to. The Bible and other religious books were written so long ago when they didn’t have the education we have now. They are fundamentally good concepts expressed in different terms but essentially the same.

There’s a need to move back in the direction of spirituality. Once again, coming to this part of the country, this part of London, we have Westminster Cathedral just behind us and no matter what people think about religions and all of the dogma, it’s clearly a huge energy centre. You can feel it when you walk inside.

"Fear of death is the ultimate and on the streets you live with it on a daily basis so I don’t even think about it anymore. From here the movement is entirely upwards."

Outcast Foundation

27 Old Gloucester Street
London
WC1N 3AX
Support Outcast Foundation

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