He shows you round the Centrepoint hostel with an infectious grin, enthusing about everything done for young homeless people, down to the convivial cooking classes where, he finds, kids finally feel relaxed and safe enough to open up about their real problems.
With his Contribution to Society Award, presented by Prince William, Matt Carlisle, 49, is the archetypal well-meaning charity worker – until he turns to look you in the eye and tells you: “Me, when I was 18, you wouldn’t have wanted me anywhere near you.”
If this senior Centrepoint manager seems like a father figure to the young people in the charity’s care, that’s because once, a long time ago, he was one of them – or, to be more honest, like some of the harder cases he now deals with.
He grew up in Manchester, the son of two parents fighting alcohol problems. He got what passed for his education, he says, at “a hard-hitting school” just outside Manchester.
He admits he added to his problems, disobeying his parents, treating life “like a game” taking drugs, acting up and getting drunk at a school that he would leave with no formal qualifications.
By 15, he was a troubled teenager living in Manchester squats. He decided to try his luck down south, and in 1982 headed to Woolwich, south-east London, to live with family members. Within a few weeks, the troubled teenager was kicked out of the Woolwich home. For the next 18 months, he had to fend for himself on the capital’s streets – with little success.
He begged and stayed in squats when he could, as he battled alcohol and drug addiction.
He would self-harm. Waking up with cut hands, in hospital, became almost a regular experience.
“I was absolutely desperate, thinking about ending it,” Mr Carlisle admits. “I thought about taking pills and hoping I wouldn’t wake up. It was a horrible place to be.”
The causes of homelessness
The causes of homelessness
1/7 Family Breakdown
Relationship breakdown, usually between young people and their parents or step-parents, is a major cause of youth homelessness. Around six in ten young people who come to Centrepoint say they had to leave home because of arguments, relationship breakdown or being told to leave. Many have experienced long-term problems at home, often involving violence, leaving them without the family support networks that most of us take for granted
2/7 Complex needs
Young people who come to Centrepoint face a range of different and complex problems. More than a third have a mental health issue, such as depression and anxiety, another third need to tackle issues with substance misuse. A similar proportion also need to improve their physical health. These problems often overlap, making it more difficult for young people to access help and increasing the chances of them becoming homeless
Young people's chances of having to leave home are higher in areas of high deprivation and poor prospects for employment and education. Many of those who experience long spells of poverty can get into problem debt, which makes it harder for them to access housing
4/7 Gang Crime
Homeless young people are often affected by gang-related problems. In some cases, it becomes too dangerous to stay in their local area meaning they can end up homeless. One in six young people at Centrepoint have been involved in or affected by gang crime
5/7 Exclusion From School
Not being in education can make it much more difficult for young people to access help with problems at home or health problems. Missing out on formal education can also make it more difficult for them to move into work
6/7 Leaving Care
Almost a quarter of young people at Centrepoint have been in care. They often have little choice but to deal with the challenges and responsibilities of living independently at a young age. Traumas faced in their early lives make care leavers some of the most vulnerable young people in our communities, with higher chances of poor outcomes in education, employment and housing. Their additional needs mean they require a higher level of support to maintain their accommodation
Around 13 per cent of young people at Centrepoint are refugees or have leave to remain, meaning it isn't safe to return home. This includes young people who come to the UK as unaccompanied minors, fleeing violence or persecution in their own country. After being granted asylum, young people sometimes find themselves with nowhere to go and can end up homeless
“It’s coming from that place,” he says, “that makes me realise how important the work we do for these young people is and how much support they need.”
If he talks of never meeting bad kids, just kids who never got the breaks, that’s the product not so much of bleeding heart as grim experience.
“I’ve worked with kids who have been murderers, gang members, been shot or have shot people,” Mr Carlisle says. “Kids who are violent, aggressive.
“But if you look in the background, it has all come from there. They are carrying some emotional bricks from a time which has brought them out that way. It’s not just about housing or a job: if you are carrying some memories which have really scarred you then you have got to delve into that to put it back together.
“No one wants to be this aggressive, horrible person,” he adds. “It’s just a matter of giving them the tools to sort out whatever issues there are. As soon as you start giving them better opportunities, they turn it around.”
Mr Carlisle’s own redemption came just before he turned 18, when he was referred to a homeless shelter in Lewisham, south-east London.
The staff there got him back on his feet, got him into an apprenticeship scheme – so successfully that he was able to return as a volunteer to the hostel, which by then had been taken over by Centrepoint.
He has been a front-line worker for the charity ever since. Now he is the regional manager for London and West London, overseeing the support given to hundreds of young people in the capital.
His dedication saw him receive the Contribution to Society Award from the charity’s patron, Prince William, at Centrepoint’s annual awards held at Kensington Palace – although, as Mr Carlisle takes you round a hostel in central London, there is much talk of what “we” do, and far less about what “I” achieve.
It is the system created by Centrepoint and its predecessors that he is emphatic about, especially when it comes to what it did for him.
“Without it,” he says, “I would be dead or in prison.”
Instead, Mr Carlisle has become the man who finds short and long term accommodation for young single parents, young people leaving care and those escaping violence and abuse.
He works with young people to help them access the additional services Centrepoint provides, such as mental health assessments and training that will equip them with the skills they need to live independently and find a career.
“I don’t tell the young people where I have come from unless I need to,” he says, “But sometimes when they are struggling, it is good to be able to say ‘I’ve been where you are and look where I am now’.”
Even so, with youngsters as challenging, or even more challenging than he once was, he admits “It’s no walk in the park.”
Yet Mr Carlisle remains confident of maintaining Centrepoint’s track record of producing positive outcomes with 90 per cent of the young people the charity helps.
He has six children of his own, he says. “If my relationship with any of them broke down and they became homeless, I would want them to come here, to Centrepoint.”
Where he is less confident is with the young homeless people who aren’t referred to Centrepoint or to any sort of help – the one in three who the charity estimates are currently being turned away unaided by English local councils when they seek assistance with homelessness.
Which is why Mr Carlisle thinks the national Young and Homeless Helpline that forms the focus of The Independent’s Christmas charity appeal will prove so essential.
“I think the helpline will uncover maybe 50,000 homeless young people we didn’t even know about because they have never been picked up by the statistics before,” he says. “At the moment the information is so poor at the point of contact.
“Someone who has just become homeless can queue up for six hours to get a list of outdated numbers and be sent back on the street.
“How demoralising is that, when they are so vulnerable? These are people at risk of sexual abuse, drugs, self-harming.
“It is vital we help them.”
How to donate to The Independent’s Christmas Appeal
The Independent’s Homeless Helpline appeal is raising money for the Centrepoint Helpline, a brand new support service that will save young people from ending up on the streets.
To donate you can:
0300 330 2731
HOME66 £5 to 70070
40-42 Phoenix Court