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Interview: Seyi Obakin, chief executive, Centrepoint  

26 February 2021

‘I believe passionately, with good reason, that youth homelessness can be solved’

I joined Centrepoint in 2003 as finance director, really wanting to help homeless young people. Because I’d spent eight years in social housing, I knew how homelessness was affecting them. I didn’t just want to be a finance director: I wanted to make the most difference possible to the young people we interact with. I was exceptionally lucky to have a chief executive who gave me room to do that.

I was born in Nigeria and brought up there. My wife was born and brought up in London. We met and married and came to Britain in 1995. The standard of education in Nigeria then was very high, but, sadly, not many people knew this. There was a tendency to ignore us or discount us, and we had to prove ourselves all over again.

Ken Leech founded the Centrepoint community for homeless young people in the parish of St Anne’s, Soho, in 1979. They approached the owners of the empty Centrepoint tower block to ask if they could house homeless young people until it was let. They couldn’t, and made other arrangements; but we’ve had a good relationship with the previous owners, who allowed us to host events there.

We do have housing ourselves. We provide nearly 1500 beds for young people in Centrepoint hostels in London, Barnsley, Bradford, Manchester, and Sunderland. But it’s not just the beds. We offer security and safety, and, beyond that, skills and motivation to get a job and a home, for about 16,000 young people between 16 and 25, every year.

The pandemic is a big issue for us, and the rise in unemployment in young people after the first spike is much higher than for adults. What will it be after this second wave?

But people gave us money, time, laptops, and offered to engage young people online. That’s what I prayed for when I was worried at the beginning. It was such a burden, but people’s generosity has carried us through until now.

We haven’t been able to hold our fund-raising events that we depend on, but our costs have gone up, to buy the right PPE to keep staff working. We couldn’t furlough them because they were needed. We had to persuade the Government to designate them as key workers. Then we had to help young people in lockdown find food and activities. We had to find ways to raise additional money, and deliver our services — numeracy, literacy, teaching, health — because we couldn’t see them face to face, and most didn’t have internet connection.

The problems aren’t insurmountable. If retail and hospitality are closing down, what other sectors can offer an apprenticeship, internship, work experience? It’s all about thinking more broadly, and persuading young people to believe they have a chance.

A lot of young people come to us because of a breakdown in the family home: poverty, abuse, violence, addiction — if there was a home. We can see that many have had a chaotic lifestyle. But young people make exceptionally quick progress once they believe in themselves.

I always ask myself: if this was my own child, would I be happy with what we’re providing? Quite a challenging question. They’re not your biological children — but, in a way, they are. It is wonderful when they come back and say: “You did this for me, and here’s what it did for me. I wouldn’t be where I am today if Centrepoint had given up on me.”

Sometimes, colleagues will say to them: “You need to go to college. Why aren’t you there? I will take you there.” “I will take you to your GP.” They go the extra mile because we want to see this young person succeed.

The major change we need isn’t policy, but attitude: underpinning our actions and public policy with generosity. We should hold the principle that the furthest that we’re willing to allow the weakest of us to fall is the furthest that we would fall ourselves.

It would lead us to ensuring that everyone can have a decent roof over their heads. We also need work solutions so as many people as possible are in good jobs that pay wages people can live on. And we need solutions in safety-net provision, so when we stumble in life, or circumstances make us vulnerable, our systems will support us and get us back on our feet.

These things can be done. We saw how political generosity led directly to effective change at the beginning of the pandemic. The Government put resources into accommodating all rough-sleepers — every one of them. Universal Credit increased across the board, which was a great help for claimants, many of whom are struggling, but it’s a temporary uplift. It would make a huge difference, especially to young people, if the Government continued in this spirit rather than revert.

Many young people are in low-paid, zero-hours, or otherwise precarious jobs. Universal Credit doesn’t acknowledge that sort of income pattern. They receive £67 less each week than older claimants, even if they live alone. And some young people are worse off when they take on new work than if they stayed on benefits or reduced their hours. Centrepoint is talking to the Government about these problems.

BAME people still suffer discrimination because human beings are inherently clannish. If two young people get on a train, one white, the other black, it’s immediately obvious that the black young person is different from the majority white population, and no one instinctively thinks about the white young person’s antecedents. This obvious difference can then lead some people immediately to make judgements that are unfair.

Public services are apparently available to all equally, but clannishness and the attendant storytelling often mean they aren’t so equally available to BAME people, because it’s human beings who deliver public services. This isn’t right, and it needs to change. We need to start changing the language we use to describe others, and the stories we tell about them.

Churches, charities, and the secular State are made up of people who are subject to the same influences; so leadership’s needed to rebalance inequalities and relieve human misery. There’s been a growing distrust of authority; so leaders must first hold a mirror to themselves on these issues and want to do something about what they see in that mirror — otherwise they pay lip-service to change, but nothing changes.

Churches and charities have a voice that the secular State doesn’t have, partly because they don’t suffer as much from that distrust. More than 160,000 charities reach people, and churches reach some of the weakest people in society.

My grandparents and parents were Christians; so I grew up with the sense of God all around me, and I saw for myself God’s touch in my life. My faith guided me in the choices I made, strengthened me at times of difficulty and failure, and kept me grounded in success and joy. It’s who I am. I’m active in my local church, where I serve in eldership, as a trustee and volunteer accountant.

Everything’s possible with God on your side. That’s why we’re capable of the seemingly impossible. It’s in our gift to create a society in which we genuinely look out for each other, as we did during lockdown.

I believe passionately, with good reason, that youth homelessness can be solved. There has been progress against discrimination in the last 50 years, and more will come. Look at the recent racial-equality protests here and in the US: they were really multi-racial.

Society feels as divided as ever; yet the things that we agree on are so much more than the things we do not agree on. Good leadership will unite us and in a short time.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Moses. I’d ask how he developed his leadership skills; how he led people through good times and turbulent times; how he kept his spirit up. Or William Wilberforce. I’d ask him what drove him, a wealthy man, to fight for something not connected to himself and from which he stood to gain nothing. If we could bottle that milk of human kindness and pour it out liberally on our world today, it would be a much better place, wouldn’t it?


Seyi Obakin was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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