Cold, wet, and homeless in January

Ben Martin joined Commonweal on the 3rd of January 2017 as our new Policy & Communications Coordinator. To welcome him to the team – and in recognition of the fact that it was his birthday last week – we thought we’d let him write the first blog post of the New Year.

Joining a new organisation is always challenging, especially if, like me, you’re coming from an entirely different background in an unrelated sector. There’s so much to learn: the details of different projects and partnerships, a whole new landscape of policy and legislation to map out, dozens of new acronyms and abbreviations to memorise – not to mention the vital issue of how everyone in the office takes their tea.

But I can honestly say that the hardest thing I’ve had to do in the two weeks since I’ve joined Commonweal was my cycle home last night. Admittedly, I’m a cold weather wimp, but cycling eight miles through freezing sleet and snow, in the dark, while dressed in trainers, cycling shorts and a very-far-from-waterproof jersey made me utterly miserable. Battered by waves of freezing slush from the wheels of buses, blinded by sleet and soaked to the skin, I cut a pretty sorry figure. By the time I arrived at my door, my frozen fingers had gone so numb that it took me several minutes – and much swearing – before I was able to claw my keys out of my pocket and fumble them into the lock.

But, as I massaged the feeling back into my aching hands and feet under the blessed warmth of a hot shower , I reflected on how privileged I was. My commute that had seemed so hellish had lasted all of 45 minutes. It had taken me from my warm dry office to my warm dry house, where I could shower, change my clothes, and make myself some dinner. But for thousands of people living on the streets our towns and cities, the shivering misery that I had briefly glimpsed is a daily experience during the winter. The heroic work of councils, churches, charities and volunteers continues to provide much-needed emergency cold weather shelter and support for the homeless, but services are overstretched, funding is dwindling, and the housing crisis continues to drive ever higher rates of rough sleeping.

Of course, I had always known that sleeping rough must be hellish, especially during winter, and one of the reasons I took this job was my deep conviction that in a society as wealthy as ours, no-one should ever have to spend a night on the streets. But for forty frozen minutes last night, shivering in the dark, at the mercy of the elements, I experienced an infinitesimal fraction of the visceral, bone-aching misery of life on the streets first hand. To face that alone, for months rather than minutes, seemed almost unendurable. As I stood in the shower, and thought about the people I cycle past every day, huddled under the bridge at the end of my street, I felt ashamed.

So, I’m proud to be joining Commonweal Housing. I’m excited to have the chance to play my own small role in addressing the crisis in housing and social care that means more and more people are being forced onto the streets. And I’m determined to remember last night, and what it made me realise about myself, my society, and the people who need our solidarity and support the most.

– Ben Martin, Policy & Communications Coordinator

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