Rising homelessness has UK in a chokehold – but this project is fighting back with mixed martial arts

Sheffield Hallam University Mark Hollett has found a way to release the chokehold homelessness has on lives – through mixed martial arts. The Big Issue met the people who used MMA classes to fight back

MMA class to prevent homelessness in Sheffield

MMA has been the trigger for Emily to stay off drugs, get a degree and start work as a support worker. Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

There are many ways to fight homelessness but, in one small gym in Sheffield, mixed martial arts are the unique weapon of choice.

MMA might conjure up images of UFC and cage matches, but a small project led by Sheffield Hallam University researcher Mark Hollett is using the sport to battle drug and alcohol addiction, help people kick on in employment and education, and prevent homelessness.

The one-hour-a-week class at Sheffield Shootfighters Mixed Martial Arts Club works with national services including Shelter and the NHS as well as local groups Mind Body Connect, Nomad, Depaul and Project 6 to help people use martial arts to change their lives.

For some, the one-of-a-kind project has been a lifeline.

‘This is where the government and society are missing out

Chris Royston got involved in the MMA classes at the back end of the pandemic after being referred by Shelter.

The 45-year-old from Barnsley was homeless back in 2015 and spent six months camping and sofa surfing while working in a supermarket, before Shelter helped him off the streets.

“There was a death in the family where I didn’t have access to the property so from that moment I was sofa surfing. I used to cycle six miles to work, do a 10-hour shift and cycle back to Sheffield city centre,” says Royston.

Chris Royston is doing MMA to prevent homelessness
Chris Royston believes the class shows the wasted potential of homelessness and the skills that the people who have experienced it can bring to wider society. Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd Chris

“Every night you would hear a noise or see someone walking around so you would only get short breaks or little naps. You were always aware, always alert, of what was around you. It was a low place to be.”

Having the support network of the MMA class has given him the foundation to kick on in life.

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He now lives in a bungalow and fundraises to help the charities that supported him. He credits the impact of the MMA class in keeping him out of homelessness.

“MMA is something totally new to me, something that I’ve seen on Sky Sports but something I knew very little about,” he adds.

“I enjoyed the community and the camaraderie, the teamwork and everyone just getting on. If new faces came in they didn’t feel like they were on the outside. You’re coming out of your shell, coming into something new that you’ve not necessarily done before. You just felt like part of the family.

“I’ve spun everything around. I’m not working now but I’m giving a lot back because I know when you help a homeless person they can excel. They can go past me and beyond me and do something else and help other people in their ways. That’s where the government and society are missing out.”

MMA classes preventing homelessness
Hollett chose to study the impact of MMA classes on people facing homelessness after failing to find similar projects. Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

Hollett, who runs the classes with coach Liam Smedley, is not just doing the project to transform lives, he’s using the classes to conduct his PhD research working with Mind Body Connect.

The academic wanted to see if classes introducing kickboxing, Thai boxing, Muay Thai, jiu-jitsu and wrestling could resonate and make a difference to people on the margins.

“What MBC believe in is exercise and sport as a vehicle for change for marginalised groups,” says Hollett, who was a support worker before switching to academia.

“My PhD was to come in, get a new group and a new activity into what MBC were already doing. That group was people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness and MMA.

MMA classes preventing homelessness
MMA trainer and fighter Liam Smedley (left) leads the classes alongside Sheffield Hallam University’s Mark Hollett. Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

“What we do sort of pride ourselves on is being able to pretty much cater to everyone. What underpins jiu-jitsu? It’s not just about fighting and submission holds. It’s actually a philosophy that goes beyond overcoming an opponent. It actually advocates a healthy lifestyle, utilising the full potential of the mind and body, a lifestyle free of substances and also remaining connected with friends and family.

“Another reason why we chose mixed martial arts is it’s never been done before.” 

‘Its been a lifesaver

Hollett’s research has now finished and he is in the process of writing up his findings.

He found that attending the weekly mixed martial arts classes has had a profound empowering effect on participants’ body and mind and given them the ability to tackle life’s challenges. 

Freddie Lee is the living embodiment of that.

The 28-year-old from Barnsley started attending classes in October 2022 after an abusive relationship left him in debt, facing homelessness due to rent arrears, addicted to drugs and forced to defer his master’s degree in art psychotherapy at Sheffield Hallam University. 

Now he has been able to rebuild his life, securing a home and employment with the MMA class providing a much-needed foundation.

“MMA gives people more agency over their life because if you’re improving someone’s social life, if you’re improving their physical health, I think it takes a lot of weight off people both literally and figuratively,” says Lee, who now works in Ikea.

MMA classes preventing homelessness
Chris Royston, Samantha Critchley and Emily (centre back row) told the Big Issue taking up MMA had transformed their lives. Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

“It gives them more agency to make better decisions, a clear mindset. It makes me feel more focused, it’s improved my overall wellbeing tenfold and just having a sense of community to look after myself has helped me prioritise self-care. It’s definitely increased my confidence. 

“Doing this has helped me move away from using drugs as a coping mechanism to self-soothe. Financially it was quite difficult. I used drugs as a crutch to help navigate difficult situations, difficult emotions and a way of avoidance. That meant my relationships were impacted, my home life was impacted and, ultimately, it didn’t serve me.

“Now I have the intent to confront difficult emotions head on and I’m quite proactive when it comes to working to better myself. It’s been a lifesaver.”

Owen was in an abstinence meeting when he was introduced to Hollett and was initially not too keen on trying his hand at martial arts.

The 46-year-old lost everything to his alcohol addiction after his drinking spiralled out of control when his parents both died from cancer within six months of each other.

His demons took his career, his girlfriend and almost his home too.

But getting involved with MMA has transformed his mindset and opened doors to other activities to improve his physical and mental wellbeing.

“I was at an abstinence meeting at Matilda Street Project when Mark came along, explained about MMA and I was like, ‘I’m not sure about this. Forget it, I won’t bother going’. But I decided to give it a go: I want to try anything new and see what happens,” says Owen.

“Afterwards though, I thought I quite enjoyed it. I was no good at it and I still am not. But I felt much, much better. I’ve never gone to an MMA session and felt worse for going there.”

MMA classes preventing homelessness
The weekly classes take place every Wednesday and offer a routine commitment for people who need it. Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

Now Owen has taken up swimming, sewing and knitting – although he might not be the biggest fan of the needlework – and the new pastimes have filled the void left by drink in his life, helping him to achieve 14 months of sobriety.

“MMA means that no matter what, I’ve only got to put aside an hour a week and I know I’m going to feel much better, learn something, get fitter, stronger. Sport and fitness in general are a huge component for keeping people like myself clean,” says Owen.

“I would say it’s given me the courage to try other things because it just seemed so inconceivable to me that I would ever do MMA. I think if I can do MMA I can do other things now.”

‘I’d totally given up on the world. I was waiting to die

Perhaps the biggest success of the project has been the ability to take two women who have overcome drug addiction and get them into employment.

For Samantha Critchley and Emily, the MMA classes have not just been an opportunity to take a different path in life, they’ve also turned their life experiences into roles as support workers for people in recovery.

It’s been quite the transformation for 52-year-old Critchley, who said she could barely leave the house after struggling with addiction and PTSD following an abusive relationship.

“From the first class I went to it properly reignited a fire in me and brought me back to life,” says Critchley, who has been clean for 16 months after her addiction started during the relationship.

MMA classes preventing homelessness
Samantha Critchley said she had given up on life before MMA came into her life. Now she’s embarking on a new career helping others beat drug addiction. Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

“I’d isolated myself away for like 10 years, I barely used to leave the house. It surprised me when I was referred to it I was like: where did that come from? But it’s given me my fight back. It’s just so empowering. I’d totally given up on the world, I was just waiting to die.

“I started a new PTSD medication a few weeks after I started the MMA class and 100% my medication would not have worked if I had not been going to MMA. No medication has ever worked for me before. It’s totally changed my life.”

MMA classes preventing homelessness
Emily plans to “send as many people as possible” to MMA classes in her new support worker role. Image: Exposure Photo Agency Ltd

It’s a similar story for Emily, who is due to start her new role as a support worker at Project 6 imminently.

The 25-year-old tells the Big Issue she had been battling addiction since the age of 12 and her substance abuse problems ultimately stood in the way of her ability to complete her sociology degree at Sheffield Hallam University.

But a year after starting the MMA course, she is sober, has finished her degree and is now starting a new career using her knowledge to help others.

Could Emily have kicked on without MMA? No, she reckons.

“I think MMA is spot on for people in my position. The classes are not judgemental at all – I was going to classes with holes in my shorts at first and it’s so accessible,” Emily says.

“I think it’s absolutely invaluable. I can honestly say hand on heart it’s been one of, if not the biggest contribution to me keeping my shit together.

“I actually went back to uni after a bit of time off and managed to get my degree by the skin of my teeth. I just stayed in recovery and I had fight in me, I had drive.

“Without MMA I think I’d be back in the chaos. I’d still be going on nights out I can tell you that. I don’t think I’d have gotten my degree. It wouldn’t actually surprise me if I ended up homeless.”

The cost of living crisis has homelessness in a chokehold and, with rising numbers, it’s going to take creativity and ingenuity – and a smart use of resources – to turn the tide. Perhaps projects like MMA and other sports could help to strike a blow.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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