Matt Nelson is the newest edition to the It Takes a City team. He joins with a wealth of experience in community engagement and project coordination as well as having been homeless when he was younger. In this article, Matt shares his past and present experiences with the aim for our readers to get to know him a little better. On behalf of the team at Street Support Network, we would like to extend a warm welcome to Matt and we look forward to working with him.
Feeling sorry for myself
I was feeling a bit rough last week. Nothing serious, just an old-fashioned stinker of a cold. I had a fridge full of food, the heating on and my lovely rescue dog for company. I felt so grateful to have a place to call home, to lie up safe, until I was better. It hadn’t always been like this.
It takes a city to change the world
I’m in my mid-fifties and just started a new job as Coordinator and Community Engagement Manager at It Takes A City, a charity whose aim is to end rough sleeping in Cambridge and create a community where everybody has a safe and secure home.
My “lived experience” of homelessness was one of the factors in ITaC’s decision to employ me. Lying on my bed, I tried to list all the places that I had lived since my family moved from East London to Basildon in the late 1960s. I lost count at thirty. I think my story is far from unique. Perhaps it will resonate with you.
“If you don’t leave now, you might not live”
When I was fifteen the situation at home was bad. Not just “stroppy teenager not getting on with his stepfather” bad, but “if you don’t leave now, you might not live” bad. I spent the next three years running, living out of a backpack. Two months in a caravan at the bottom of a friends’ garden. A few weeks bunking down on a mate’s floor. From sofa to couch to camp bed. Somehow, I managed to continue studying and got grades good enough to sign up for a degree in London.
Going to Uni would solve everything
Nobody in my family had ever been to Uni, or even college. This was the early 1980s, so I was lucky enough to get a maintenance grant. My family had shattered, with no spare resources to give me a hand, and so began two years of constant battles with bad landlords, who used to charge us high for often damp and dangerous housing.
There was ice on the inside of the windows
I was a tired, confused young man, who just wanted a place to call home. I was not in a great place mentally and, after spending a freezing cold winter squatting in Plumstead, trying to keep up with my studies, I decided to leave Uni and return to my hometown.
Playing the game would make me safe
I got a job in a factory. It was good money for the time. I met a lovely woman and we moved from place to place for a couple of years. We didn’t want to keep moving, but the letting agents always found a reason to not renew the tenancy.
The most common excuse was the owner wanting to sell, as you watched the “To Let” board going up the week after your left.
Our relationship came to an end and I was left trying to pay the rent on my own. Redundancy meant that I lost the roof over my head. No fixed abode, no job. No job, no tenancy.
Feeling like a gooseberry
This time round I was a little luckier. I had a small circle of close friends who were able to offer a bed or sofa for short periods. But when you are a grown adult, you want to feel a sense of pride in taking care of yourself. But, like many others, I was ground down and deflated. I spent another two years living out of a backpack, adrift.
Breaking the circuit
A small bequest from my Grandfather’s will gave me an opportunity for a circuit break. A chance to escape my situation and reconnect with the person I knew I wanted to be. I bought a plane ticket and spent a year living in New Zealand, volunteering on organic farms. I was used to travelling light and moving often. Finally, I had the breathing space to focus.
Safe yet not secure
In the twenty-seven years since my return, I have worked in the community, running projects supporting the homeless, those with addictions, young people, in social housing and for a trade union. My wife, a primary school teacher, and I have been together for twenty-two years.
For fourteen of those, we rented a succession of houses. When you can’t put up a shelf, because the tenancy doesn’t allow it. When you can’t hang a family photo on the wall. When all your furniture has to be free standing, it doesn’t quite feel like your home.
The happy ending bit!
Having somehow scraped together a deposit, for the last eight years we have been paying the mortgage on a little two up two down Victorian terrace. It’s where I am typing this post. In middle age, finally, I’m home.
For more information on the work of It Takes A City and our partners, or to offer your support in any way, please contact Matt Nelson firstname.lastname@example.org