Centrepoint: How a poor churchman began a homelessness charity which has now helped over 100,000 people

One of the first people Centrepoint helped was Sandy Marks, who went on to be the Mayor of Islington in 1996

Click to follow
The Independent Online

With the promise of more jobs and a better life, thousands of young people flooded into London in the 1960s.

But without enough affordable housing to accommodate them, many ended up alone and living on the streets of the city.

Reverend Ken Leech was based at St Anne’s Church in Soho during the period and saw the damage done to those left on the streets, vulnerable to prostitution and drug-taking.

In 1969, with just £30 in his bank account, he decided to collaborate with the Simon Community - a collective of homeless people and volunteers - to open up the doors of his church and young homeless people in for temporary shelter.

The first night the basement was opened no one turned up but, within a month, there were 600 people coming for each night.

By the end of the first year the church had hosted 5,000 young people.

Rev. Leech went on to help set up the first homeless hostel for young people the following year.

Homeless shelter: The Reverend Kenneth Leech, taken in 1998, set up the charity (Alex MacNaughton)

In an interview with Rev Leech in 2004, The Guardian reported that the name Centrepoint was chosen for the shelter as a pointed reminder of the new tower block Centre Point, built onTottenham Court Road.

The building stood empty for years as a loophole in the law made it cheaper for the owner, making millions for them as hundreds of young people slept on the streets.

But others suggested that the name is less associated with the landmark building and was, instead, chosen because the church was at the centre of the parish.

One of the first people Centrepoint helped was Sandy Marks, who went on to be the Mayor of Islington in 1996.

In 1970, aged just 16, she stayed with the charity when it offered homeless people shelter for up to three consecutive nights.

"A lot of homeless people came to London thinking the streets were paved with gold," she told the BBC in 2005.

"They thought you'd turn up, get a job and somewhere to live. They ended up, like me, sleeping in bushes.

"You got soup and a roll and had to leave early. But it gave me respite to think about what the hell I was doing. In 1970, getting a job, a bedsit and back on your feet was easier."

Ms Marks, added: "Now there are thousands of hostel places, but it's almost impossible to get somewhere to rent.

"The longer a person is homeless, the longer their own strength is destroyed. Projects that enable people to build self-esteem are invaluable."

Prince William became patron of the charity in 2005, following in the footsteps of his mother Princess Diana.

Now, almost 50 years after the charity was launched, it has helped more than 116,000 young people.

It has moved on from just providing shelter, to helping people build their lives again with counselling, education and life skills.