Led by chief executive Seyi Obakin OBE, Centrepoint is tackling youth homelessness with a vigour all its own. Brian Noone reports on the London-based charity
Homelessness has been with us for centuries, but we’ve never been quite sure what to do about it. In Tudor England the homeless were put in gaol and sometimes humiliated in public stocks for days on end. The English Poor Laws in later years offered the indigent both the carrot and the stick. The workhouse for some, where shelter and paid work were provided, while others – those less willing, or able – received a public whipping, a “V” branded on their skin (for “vagabond”) or forced transportation to America or Australia.
Nearly 500 years later, we have come a long way in our understanding of poverty and homelessness – but perhaps not far enough. The carrots and the sticks of contemporary policy have provided the less well off with more opportunities than in previous centuries, but there are still, as Centrepoint CEO Seyi Obakin points out, “150,000 young people in the UK who ask for help with homelessness each year”.
Centrepoint has been confronting the challenge head-on since 1969: it is a charity exclusively concerned with youth homelessness, an issue that not only affects young people at the moment, but shapes their emerging habits and understanding of the world for the rest of their lives. The support that Centrepoint gives for those aged 16 to 25 establishes a firm foundation for not only understanding how to manage the practical aspects of their lives but to flourish while doing so.
The charity has its origins in the sordid streets of London’s Soho. A cooperation between Rev Dr Kenneth Leech, the Oxford-ordained curate at St Anne’s Church, and Anton Wallich-Clifford, founder of the Simon Community charity, it was conceived as a place of respite for the masses of young, unemployed people who were flooding into the British capital and finding not only no job, but also no place to sleep. The facility’s name, Centrepoint, was a facetious jab at the skyscraper that stood at the end of the street, Centre Point, a 33-storey modernist office block that remained empty for years. Leech called it “an affront to homelessness”, and his shelter offered both a bed to sleep in and guidance for the youths about how to find a place for themselves in the city.
Over the last 48 years, Centrepoint has expanded at a speed that makes its corporate peers jealous. From the single facility in Soho it has grown across outward from London to include more than 50 hostels and educational facilities with hundreds of staff members and volunteers. It is a dismal sort of expansion – no one wants to see homeless kids – but Obakin and the rest of the Centrepoint team are pleased to be able to reach so many in need. As he says, “I am proud that Centrepoint has become much more than the night shelter it started out as. Today, Centrepoint is about enabling youngsters for whom life has spiralled out of control to take control again of their own lives.”
Centrepoint has another statistic the corporate world envies: a 90% success rate. More than 9,000 youths approach Centrepoint every year, and nine out of every ten demonstrate a measureable, positive outcome after moving on. Sometimes that means they got jobs or places in a university; sometimes it means they enrolled in a drug rehab facility; sometimes it means they were able to save up enough money for two-months’ deposit on a rental flat, for many their first “real” home as an adult.
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Because of the sensitive nature of its work, Centrepoint tends to advertise itself with statistics rather than stories: it boasts, for instance, that for every pound spent at Centrepoint, it saves government spending £2.40. The stories, however, are more inspiring than a number ever can be: Monique was kicked out of her home at 17 and surfed friends’ sofas for a year before a mental breakdown and an overdose took her to the hospital. “My support fell away from me and I just couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. She was referred to Centrepoint, where she rebuilt her confidence and discovered a talent for weightlifting. “I wanted to find a sport I could compete in,” she explains. “I’d always liked the look of weights but was too scared.” After two months of training, she won her first competition. She’s gone on to win national and international competitions, as well as a world powerlifiting championship. Equally importantly, she’s settled in her life now at age 24: she works full time as an activity coordinator at a mental health unit in London.
Hannah’s situation is different, but required similar self-determination on her part: after her home burned down, she found herself unable to live with her constantly argumentative parents. Centrepoint offered a refuge while she finished college, and it springboarded her on to university, where she began studying costume design in September.
The stories at Centrepoint are as diverse as the facilities: some people are at the short-stay hostels for just one week, others benefit from extended time with the support workers over many months. “Too many people think homeless young people are ‘ne’er do wells’, that they have brought the problem on themselves in some way, or that they are lazy and unwilling to help themselves out of the situation they find themselves in,” says Obakin. “This could not be further from the truth. For some young people, life just took an unexpected turn for the worse and became uncontrollable incredibly quickly. For some others, the circumstances of their birth meant that homelessness was just waiting to happen. And for many, they simply do not have the support network around them to find help.”
Obakin speaks with a rare compassion for disadvantaged youth, and last year he was recognised for his dedication in one of Britain’s most prestigious ways: he was awarded an OBE by the Queen.
Over the years, the royal family has shown great interest in Centrepoint. It was of special concern to Princess Diana, who often brought her sons to visit the facilities, and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, has become a patron of the charity. “That example of selfless service that Centrepoint represents has stayed with me,” he has said, “and that is why it was the first charity that I wanted to be associated with.”
Obakin and the Prince even spent a night together sleeping rough in 2009 to support the cause, which was not just a one-off for the press: “What people may not realise is that The Duke is just as committed to Centrepoint behind the scenes as he is in public,” says Obakin. He explains that the new Centrepoint helpline, launched earlier this year, was kick-started by William: “We had a vision of a national single ‘front door’ for homeless young people that would help them to navigate a complex system and save them from a downward spiral into homelessness. It would have remained a glint in our eye without support from Prince William – his interventions at decisive moments helped to turn this vision into a reality.”
It was another Etonian, George Orwell, who aptly diagnosed one of the principal difficulties of poverty: “It is curious how people take it for granted that they have a right to preach at you and pray over you as soon as your income falls below a certain level.” As Centrepoint approaches its semicentennial, it is an achievement to be proud of that it neither preaches nor prays nor condescends in any way – how far we have come since Tudor England. centrepoint.org.uk
NetJets Magazine, 2017