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Exeter man speaks out about his experiences of homelessness

An Exeter man who rebuilt his life after hitting rock bottom, has spoken for the first time about how it felt and how he is now working to support young people in difficult circumstances.

In the first episode of Word on the Street – a new St Petrock’s website blog for existing and former homeless clients to express themselves – Ben Cookson tells of how he lost his home, business and family, eventually attempting suicide, which was the turning point from which he turned his life around.

As Ben releases his story, a report published today reveals that rough sleeping is up by 26 per cent in one year and government targets for ending rough sleeping by the end of 2024 will be missed.

Ben, who spent a decade addicted to drug and alcohol after unresolved trauma from his childhood caught up with him, is now speaking out in the hope that his experiences will provide inspiration to others in similarly desperate circumstances.

He said: “The recession came in my mid thirties. In 2008, I lost my business, my family, my house and everything I had worked for. I was able to rent for most of this time, but ran out of money in 2019 and spent a year sleeping on friends’ floors and sofas.”

“Living with an addiction is extremely difficult. The shame and guilt I carried from taking drugs were unbearable and led me further and deeper into the grip of addiction. I just couldn’t comprehend how my life had turned out the way it had.”

In 2020 Ben hit rock bottom and decided to take his own life.  Although he came close to suicide, fortunately someone intervened just in time and it was at this point St Petrock’s stepped in and Ben’s life started to change for the better.

Today’s report by The Kerslake Commission states that homelessness is rising sharply due to a number of factors, including a ‘severe shortage’ of affordable housing, a lack of support services and the cost of living crisis.

Peter Stephenson, director of St Petrock’s, said: “Like many homeless people we support, Ben experienced trauma in childhood, which triggered a sense of worthlessness and drug and alcohol addiction to blot out his pain.  His inspiring story just goes to show that even when things seem impossibly dark, there’s always a light to be found at the end of that tunnel.

“We’re so grateful to Ben for his courage and honesty and his desire to offer a glimmer of hope to people who may be feeling the desperation he experienced three years ago. We’re very glad to have played a part in his recovery.

“Today’s Kerslake report reflects the situation in Exeter, where rough sleeping doubled in 2022, and we have seen an increase in the number of people needing our services, this year.”

The Kerslake Commission has recommended three key principles that should guide the government’s approach to homelessness. These are:

Prevent people from getting to the brink of homelessness
Nobody should need to get onto the streets before they get help
Everybody should have a way out of rough sleeping

The commission has called on the government to urgently increase housing benefit, so it covers local affordable rents.

Ben added: “In short, I honestly do not think that I would be here today if it was not for all that St Petrock’s did for me and all I have now, including peace of mind, beautiful relationships with my children, hope for the future and so much more would not have been possible. Words cannot express my gratitude, thank you so much to all at St Petrock’s.”