Staff past and present
To mark Centrepoint’s 50th Anniversary, former and current staff members reflect on their time at Centrepoint and youth homelessness through the decades.
Church Warden at St Anne's and Centrepoint's first chairman1969-1975
“Everyone knows that Centrepoint is the charity for the homeless young. I couldn’t be more proud to have had anything to do with it.”
Centrepoint was started in the basement of St Anne's Church in Dean St, Soho by the Reverend Ken Leech in 1969.
Here, Church warden and former Centrepoint chairman Tim Miller, talks about Ken Leech and Centrepoint's beginnings.
Former church warden and Centrepoint chairman, Tim Miller, tells the story of Centrepoint's begninnings in St Anne's Church, Soho.
Various roles including Soho night shelter area leader 1974-82
“Centrepoint was unique in those days, there was nowhere like it. There were no resources so it was a commitment. People saw it as a spiritual vocation."
Paul Thompson worked as a volunteer at the Night Shelter in 1974 with many of the founding members of the organisation; eventually becoming team leader.
The early days
When Paul first started working for Centrepoint as a volunteer, he'd start his shift in the late afternoon straight after work. "The very first thing you did was go to the Berwick St Market and get the vegetables that had fallen on the floor which you could have for free and you’d make the soup with that.”
Paul remembers Centrepoint being completely unique. "There was nowhere like it. There were no resources so it was a commitment. People saw it as a spiritual vocation. Sometimes I would do the night shift and just carry on into the next day. We were totally committed.” he says. "However, it did mean that the length of stay was short because staff would get burnt out."
“The amazing thing about Centrepoint was that anybody could turn up and we would hopefully be able to help them in some way.”
One vivid memory of Paul's, is of one vulnerable individual using the night shelter who was transitioning gender. "They were in total despair, but we provided a safe space without judgement. In those days, there was very little support for people who were transitioning so it must have been extremely difficult for them."
Paul has very fond memories of working for Centrepoint. “It was a tremendous place. It was unique. The contact with the young people felt important.”
"Centrepoint's identification of unrecognised need, whether mental health, child protection or statutory homelessness was key."
Although Paul left Centrepoint in 1977, he stayed on as part of the committee from 1980-82 before going onto train in social work, psychotherapy and teaching. He was also a Mental Health Act Commissioner and on the Care Standards Tribunal. He is now retired.
Nic was employed as Centrepoint’s first paid Director between 1974-1986. Before that, Centrepoint was run largely by volunteers.
The first pathway
During his time as Director, Centrepoint expanded beyond the night shelter to include Centrepoint House and also some flats and bedsits, giving the organisation its first housing pathway.
“Shaftsbury Homes offered us a house in Hammersmith. So that was the first hostel and that was called Centrepoint House. That really unlocked the growth. Then we got another opportunity through the Church of England’s Children’s Charity. I got a phonecall from the director of the charity and he told me that they wanted to offer us some bedsits. I thought it was a joke, but he was serious and he offered us three or four bedsits. So for the first time, we had a full pathway. We had the night shelter, the hostel and then the bedsits. We had been in survival mode up to that point and then the pathway opened up.”
One of Nic’s most vivid memories from working at Centrepoint was when Prince Charles came to visit the Night Shelter. “It was an amazing evening because it opened up his eyes to what was happening two-and-a-half miles from Buckingham Palace.”
“When he arrived, I took him to the common room. The entrance into that was like a swing door, a bit like a door into a bar in the Wild West. He pushed open the doors and nothing happened. Suddenly, one of the kids recognised him and sort of fell on his knees and exclaimed something like “Mister, welcome to our place!”Everyone crowded around him and wanted to shake his hand. I said to them, “Prince Charles has come to sit down and listen to your stories.” He sat with them for an hour or two and just listened to them.”
After the meeting, Nic took Prince Charles upstairs to talk about his experience. “He looked visibly shocked. At that time he wasn’t a lot older than some of them were. They’d obviously told him about their problems at home and having to get away, drug use and so on. Some of the kids who appeared at the night shelter were in an extremely vulnerable state. So he was physically and emotionally very upset by what they had had to go through.”
Nic recalls two funny things happening in relation to the meeting: “The Prince’s Trust sent us some money to replace the broken cassette player that one of the young people had mentioned to him. The other thing was that one of the kids he met had broken his arm. He asked if Prince Charles could sign the plaster for him which he did. Then the young person gave him his scarf and he asked if he could give it to Princess Diana as a present! He took it with him.”
After leaving Centrepoint, Nic set up a charity called ChildHope UK which works to support street children internationally. Nic emphasises that the charity was founded on the principles and values of Centrepoint.
Night shelter team leader and Centrepoint coordinator 1977-86
"I do think it’s wrong to assume that large scale youth homelessness is inevitable. So much of it is a consequence of decisions that we make or fail to make with regards to services and investing in young people."
David first worked at our night shelter for four months in 1977 before moving onto be team leader at Centrepoint House, and later Coordinator.
The night shelter
When David first started at Centrepoint, its services consisted Centrepoint House, a longer stay hostel and the short stay night shelter. “If you wanted to get into the night shelter at that time, you had to ring a bell at a big gate on Shaftsbury Avenue. You waited in the dark, while someone with a clipboard made their way out through the yard to the gate. You were interviewed on the street… it was very early days still.” he recalls.
Despite the fact that Centrepoint was in its infancy and had limited resources, the night shelter was a sanctuary for the young people that used it.
“It was a safe space for young people who came in. That’s why I always had misgivings about turning people away who were clearly still vulnerable just because they’d hit their three night limit. I don’t think it officially changed while I was there, but we were more flexible with it.” David says.
Youth homelessness today
David has recently retired and has over 30 years’ experience in chief executive roles, most recently at the National Housing Federation. He is Chair of Reall, an international development housing charity and is a former president of Housing Europe.
Night shelter team leader 1979-1986
“Some of the stories were horrendous and I don’t suppose they’re any different really from the stories you get now. Finding accommodation was difficult – there were very few hostels. That’s why Centrepoint was set up.”
Linda was our Night Shelter Leader from 1979-1986. Working at the night shelter in Soho, she remembers meeting homeless young people when they first arrived at Centrepoint.
Triage at the gate
Youth homelessness then
Those who used the shelter had varying needs; some had experienced complex trauma. “Some of the stories were horrendous and I don’t suppose they’re any different really from the stories you get now. ”
However, Linda recalls that the majority of the young people using the night shelter would come from Scotland or the North of England looking for work and more often than not, they just needed a steer in the right direction to get advice. “We worked closely with other organisations that could help them during the day. We usually sent them initially to The Soho Project or Alone in London and they would help out with the benefit claims- often people would come without ID so they would help sort that out."
Working at Centrepoint
Linda remembers her time at Centrepoint fondly. “There was a lot of warmth in the place. I mean it was very basic, but there was warmth there.”
Linda now lives in Scotland had has had a varied career working with vulnerable people, specialising in complex trauma psychotherapy. She is looking forward to retiring soon!
“You’d have kids arriving at Euston from other parts of the country to look for work and people would try and pick them up within hours of them arriving. It was a dangerous environment for them.”
Nick Hardwick was CEO at Centrepoint from 1986-1995 and was instrumental in Princess Diana becoming Patron and Centrepoint’s steer into research and policy.
A voice in the wilderness
Nick remembers Soho being really dangerous for young people in the 1980s. "Young people were preyed upon in a way that has come to light now, but at that point it felt like we were the only ones talking about it.”
When benefits were cut for 16-year-olds in 1988, Nick recalls the effect being instantly visible. “Suddenly we had this crisis of homeless 16-year-olds, many of whom had been chucked out of children’s homes and a lot of whom were sleeping on the streets. You rarely see children that young on the streets now.”
“We were quite successful in getting ministers to come out with us and meet young people on the streets. Princess Diana did that as well. I think that really did open their eyes to what was going on. It really affected some of them because they saw how young they were. You used to walk down The Strand and see a group of 16-year-olds in almost every doorway." Nick remembers this being very difficult for the staff working at the night shelter. "It was desperate. You knew that if the night shelter was full and you had to turn people away then they were in real trouble; they could get exploited on the streets.”
Diana's patronage with Centrepoint helped to raise political and public awareness of youth homelessness. "Diana was absolutely clear we were not only dealing with the immediate problem of people coming to our door, but also trying to look at the reasons why; the policies that were causing it." Nick recalls one occasion where the Prime Minister said disparaging things about homeless people. "Princess Di was on the phone the next day and got us to take her down to the Bullring, which was the underpass between Waterloo Bridge and Waterloo Station. At that point, there were hundreds of people sleeping down there, kids included. We took Princess Di down there without security. She was doing that very deliberately. She was making a point that these people weren’t dangerous 'non-humans', or some ‘other’; these are people with problems that we ought to be helping."
“I think there will always be youth homelessness. There will be family breakdown and young people will move for work, but I think critically, it’s important that we focus on the structural issues that cause it. It’s not some inadequacy in the young people themselves. It’s a structural problem due to lack of accommodation and a lack of support. However, I think the process of moving from childhood to adulthood will always be one that needs support.”
Nick moved to a part-time role at Royal Holloway in February 2016 after a career leading organisations in the voluntary sector and UK criminal justice system
Lord Victor Adewobale
“Sadly, when I look around, we’ve come full circle. It’s frightening that homelessness has risen by 150% – we’re back to where we were when I first started. That’s shocking. We’re talking about the levels of poverty seen in Cathy Come Home. When that film was released in the sixties, the nation was horrified. Now, it’s the new normal.”
Lord Victor Adewobale CBE was CEO at Centrepoint between 1995 and 2001, before becoming Chief Executive at Turning Point. He is a champion of the vulnerable and those with complex needs. In 2000, Victor was awarded the CBE in the New Year Honours List for services to the New Deal, the unemployed, and homeless young people and in 2001, he was appointed a cross bench member of the House of Lords.
“It was a real baptism of fire for me, as Centrepoint was going through some financial challenges. Princess Diana had also announced after the previous CEO left that she was going to reduce the number of her patronages quite significantly. The day I started, I had to do two things: go on the Today programme, then go straight from there to Kensington Palace to meet Diana. It wouldn’t have been a good start if I’d come back from there without her as patron.”
Working with Diana
“When I first met her, I knew that I could only approach her by being myself. At the end of the day, I’m a lad from Wakefield – I can’t pretend to be anything I’m not. In the end I broke the ice by looking around the room and saying, “You know this room, it really reminds me of my living room.” She started laughing. I said, “This sofa’s just like mine – this really is like home from home.” She must have thought I was a bit mad. I admitted to her that I didn’t know what all the protocols were, but it was my first day in the job and she’d be doing me a real favour if she didn’t dump me. I think she was intrigued if nothing else, so she agreed.”
“Youth homelessness was a big issue and Centrepoint was leading the way. I think she genuinely cared. Of course she didn’t have much in common with street homelessness, but she did in the sense of feeling like an outsider. She was very committed to Centrepoint and we worked well together. She was educated by what she saw and I was educated by her.”
Working for Centrepoint
“It was the highest profile youth homelessness organisation in the country when I took over thanks to Nick Hardwick – he was an unbelievable man to follow. My job was to keep it there; it was about building on what he had created and getting us in a stronger financial position so that we were sustainable.”
“We kept governments accountable and made sure the issues were debated. We were very influential in terms of youth homelessness and youth policy. We did loads of work around housing benefit and welfare. We fought the government’s attempts to cut housing benefit for single people. We also opened the first specialist youth employment agency.”
Fragmentation within services
"When I started working at Centrepoint, homelessness was extreme for people of all ages. It was the time of the recessions in the early 90s and rough sleeping was prevalent with cardboard cities on the South Bank. It was an absolute scandal and people were very motivated around that issue. From the late 90s, mainly due to the Rough Sleeper Initiative, things gradually started to improve. However, since 2010 it seems to have reversed. It feels like we’ve gone backwards."
“Sadly when I look around, we’ve come full circle. It’s frightening that homelessness has risen by 150% – we’re back to where we were when I first started. That’s shocking. You talk to the chief exec of the Trussell Trust and she’s talking about destitution. We’re talking about the levels of poverty seen in Cathy Come Home. When that film was released in the sixties, the nation was horrified. Now, it’s the new normal.”
"Everyone has a right to a home. In the broadest sense when you’ve got young people who have been deprived of a home for whatever reason, if we don’t deal with that, then it just stores up trouble for the future.”
Anthony was CEO from 2000-2009 after being Deputy CEO of the National Youth Agency. Anthony was instrumental in Prince William becoming Patron.
Prince William’s patronage
One of Anthony’s fondest memories from his time at Centrepoint was when Prince William was doing work experience prior to his patronage.
“When Prince William left university, I grabbed the opportunity and suggested that he did some volunteering with us. He was very interested in the charity and remembered the visits with his mother as a child. We organised quite an accelerated programme of volunteering within our different services. The Monday of the first week that William came to work with us, It was about 7am in the morning at one hostel and people were stumbling down for breakfast. One or two people sat down and didn’t even notice Prince William, but then another young person came down bleary eyed and did a double take and said, “F**king hell! It’s Prince William!”
The need for Centrepoint
Anthony believes it is vital that organisations like Centrepoint exist because in the broadest sense, everyone needs a home.
“I always said that if we’re tackling homelessness, we needed to think about what homefulness meant. Everyone has a right to a home. In the broadest sense when you’ve got young people who have been deprived of a home for whatever reason, if we don’t deal with that, then it just stores up trouble for the future.”
He adds, “There is still a lack of understanding now as there was then as to the problems that young people have. There is a lack of empathy. As a society we don’t listen hard enough to children and young people.”
Anthony is retired, but still does charity and advisory work as well as important grandfatherly duties.
Service Manager 2005 - present
"I totally believe in our system of support because I would have never be doing what I do now, if it was not for the support I received then."
Matt became homeless in his early teens when he came to London from Manchester looking for work. In the beginning, he stayed with a relative, but it was not long before he was asked to leave due to his own bad behaviour. Matt then spent the next 18 months homeless, drifting from place to place and often sleeping rough on the streets of London.
Just before Matt turned 18, he was referred to a service for homeless young people in south London, and it was here that Matt got the support he needed to start turning his life around. Years later, Centrepoint took over the management of this service and Matt became the service manager; an accomplishment he is very proud of and testament to what can happen when young people are given the right support.
“I was homeless and lived in services in the 1980’s. I came from Manchester and I ended up in a service in Lewisham and without that lucky break I am sure that, I would have been dead or in prison by my 20's"
"Without great support workers sticking by me and trying to work with me, it’s very simple I wouldn’t be here now. This is why I am so dedicated to Centrepoint and what we do. I totally believe in our system of support because I would have never be doing what I do now, if it was not for the support I received then," he says.
The picture today
"When I was in services myself, there was always the option of getting social housing or at least, affordable housing. That’s all changed. It’s hard enough planning to leave home with your family’s support. But when you’re thrust into it and you can’t go home because it’s a risk, or it’s no good for you, you’re options are really stark, and this is where problems can start.”
Working at Centrepoint
“The best thing about working here is working with young people and changing lives. I don’t think it’s ever been as hard as it is now for young people to leave home and stand on their own two feet so the job we do at Centrepoint is vital; it’s never been more important. "
Matt now manages a number of Centrepoint services and continues to give homeless young people the support they need.
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© Centrepoint 2019. Centrepoint Soho, operating as Centrepoint, is a charity registered with the Charity Commission of England and Wales under number 292411 whose registered office is at Central House, 25 Camperdown Street, London, E1 8DZ and a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales under number 01929421.