Maeve O’Sullivan in conversation with
Ben Rafiqi is co-founder of homeless outreach charity Let’s Feed Brum and Birmingham’s only permanent night shelter Tabor House. Maeve O’Sullivan is a PR & marketing consultant, 26 member and recent Birmingham transplant. Maeve and Ben met when she began volunteering for Let’s Feed Brum in early 2019.
Note 1: March-May
“Today was glorious,” says Ben. “There are beautiful moments all day long, if you look for them.” Ben walks around Birmingham for several hours every afternoon. The break prepares him for night shifts managing emergency homeless accommodation and co-ordinating food distribution.
Ben Rafiqi has spent almost ten years befriending and helping rough sleepers, co-founding an outreach charity and night shelter in the process. He has seen the lockdown unplug horrendous systemic bottlenecks, like the reduction of housing wait times from 8 months to 48 hours. This is good news, but Ben is working with people who have been institutionalized by a system that hasn’t given them what they need for too long, people struggling with mental health issues that are not being supported.
Ben can see the potential for long term change but right now, he says, “We have the ability to be human beings, stand alongside others, and demand that they be treated with respect and dignity.”
Note 2: May-July
We meet in a crowded park, packed with families out enjoying the sun. The atmosphere is strangely festive, given the preceding weeks. Ben’s back home, having spent 80 nights in the hotel. He feels like he’s run a marathon. Like he can take on anything. He’s invigorated but also angry about a system that doesn’t seem to help anyone.
Contracts are awarded to the cheapest bidder. Support staff come and go. Relationships don’t develop. How could one when people must communicate by phone because of a work from home lockdown rule?
At the hotel, Ben and his team often felt more like operators in an exchange, managing the unmet emotional needs of guests but also those of the support staff. People understood that they weren’t getting the help they needed and the support staff, already ill-equipped, could not flex in a crisis. Most of the guests have moved into permanent accommodation now but so many have ongoing mental health issues that Ben worries about their welfare.
And yet, today in the park, Ben feels optimistic. “I grew up at the tail end of the hippie generation. My era was punk,’ he says. He believes that we are at the beginning of a ‘brave new world’. Although this disturbance we are in the midst of will continue, his faith gives him hope.
Note 3: July-August
Have we taken our freedom for granted over the last few decades? Tighter restrictions were reintroduced to Birmingham a few days before our call. It feels like we’re on the verge of another lockdown. The most banal and natural interactions continue to feel unthinkable, like hugging a friend or going to the cinema.
Life continues to adapt though, and it’s not all bad. “Lockdown has brought out the best in people – I do see it, and that’s a glorious thing,’ Ben says. He is proud of his adopted home city. He feels a beating heart, filled with compassion.
Let’s Feed Brum is back on track with adapted and evolved services. Masked and gloved outreach teams walk the city centre streets most nights, distributing food, drinks and other items.
Most importantly, they’re making contact with the most needy individuals, ‘those who are always last on the list.’ And that list does not show signs of shrinking. If another lockdown happens, there’ll be a cohort of people who might end up on the street, filling the spaces left vacant by those who were there before.
We don’t know what lies ahead. But it’s people like Ben who will keep getting things done and take others along with them.