Homeless teen to Olympic hero: Jade Johnson’s message of hope

03 December 2021

Young & determined

For me, I have always known what I wanted to do. In 1988, when I was just eight, Florence Griffith Joyner was at the top of her game; she was the world record holder for the 100m and 200m sprint. I remember the first time I saw her, this light-skinned Black woman with her red lipstick, long nails, and vibrant costumes. The world loved her.

At school, I was fast. On sports day, everyone would call me a little FloJo. I thought, if all I need to do to be accepted is run fast, then I want to go to the Olympics. At eight years old, I told my mum just that – I said, “Mum, I’m going to the Olympics.”

I believe adversity breeds success. When I was seven, my family moved from London to Liverpool, and there were no other ethnic minorities where we lived. I’m mixed race – my dad is Jamaican, and my mum is white British. I have a distinct memory of running from a man. I was running and running, and he was chasing me, calling me horrible, racist names. When he finally grabbed me, I thought I was going to die. It was the moment I broke. I thought, this life is so scary, how do people do it? I was just a vulnerable child. A voice came to me and said, “You don’t need anyone, it’s you against the world and you’re never going to let anyone mess with you again.”

Some experiences, though traumatic, give a certain depth of character; they give you the ability to overcome and push through. I was determined and opinionated – or “mouthy”, as my mum would put it. I knew what I believed in and what I wanted to do, but at home that would create conflict.

One day, when I was 17, we got into a big argument. I can’t remember what it was about, but I just left, because the situation was becoming unliveable.

Homeless at seventeen

At the time I fell out with my mum, I was one of the UK’s most promising young athletes, but I had stopped training due to a fractured spine. This contributed to my stress because I couldn’t do what I really loved.

But I had found another love: I had a boyfriend. I met him at my training group, and we would do everything together. It was so intense that all my friendships fizzled out. He said, “Don’t worry, I’ll always be here for you,” and I believed it.

To present as homeless, you have to first visit your local council. I felt so alone in their waiting room. I got registered, but they didn’t make it easy – they gave me some addresses for places to stay, but I had to go on my own.

At this time, my boyfriend was becoming less available. “I’m really tired,” he said on the day I registered. “I need to go home. Where can I drop you?” I had nowhere to go, so he pulled over on Streatham High Road and I got out sobbing. But the universe is interesting: as I’m crossing the road, I bump into a guy I used to know. He just talked to me, and helped me figure out the next few steps I needed to take. He told me it was going to be ok. It saved me.

That’s how I came to Centrepoint. I was told there was an emergency hostel in Central London and that they could help me. It was strange to see so many young people there – I thought I was the only one! All these people from all different backgrounds. You had to be in by 8pm, and you’d get a hot meal. I stayed for seven days, and then they would help you move onto somewhere new, and provide any information you needed.

A new start

From there, I stayed in a couple of longer-term hostels, before finding a shared flat. I got a job in the divorce courts at Chancery Lane, but a nine-to-five isn’t for me, and I soon went back to athletics. I joined a new coach in North London in December. By May, I started competing again – on my second competition of the year, I jumped long enough to be ranked number two in the world as a junior. Within a week or two, I got sponsored by Nike and received lottery funding. At 19, I was finally able to follow my dream of becoming a professional athlete.

Family at Christmas

I left home in September; by December I had reconciled with my mum – having her in my life was more important than our differences. I was resentful for a long time, but until I had my son, I didn’t realise how hard it was to be a parent. We still see each other every Christmas. I’ve got a big family – between my sisters and I, we have six boys! And my mum knows how to do Christmas right, so I’ve always felt such a warm feeling at this time of year.

It makes me so sad to think that there are young people who aren’t going to have that. What Centrepoint do with their More Than A Gift campaign, it’s amazing – making Christmas just that little bit more special for those who don’t have family around them. I hope people will consider donating something, whether it’s a Christmas dinner, or a study kit, or something even bigger like a room sponsorship. It all helps young people feel loved and move on from homelessness.

What I’ve learnt

My experiences have taught me that I can make it through anything, and I’m going to be better on the other side. When I think about the homeless young people in Centrepoint services right now, our individual stories might be different, but we all feel the same – those feelings of being alone, of being scared and vulnerable. With Centrepoint, young people can work through those feelings, and become the best version of themselves as they find their independence.

Homeless young people just need hope. When I saw my friend on Streatham High Road that day – that gave me my hope. I’d like it if my story could be that hope for someone else. Like I said, adversity builds the foundation to success; what you’re going through now is going to give you the strength to get you where you need to be. Success doesn’t have to mean being an athlete, or a brain surgeon – it’s achieving the things you want. It’s being happy.

Right now, for many young people, they’re in the toughest, most uncertain time of their lives, and they don’t know how they’re going to get where they want to be. But it will happen. They’ll get there – it’s just one step at a time. And with Centrepoint’s help, the future isn’t far away.