Young, gifted and formerly homeless: the talented artists and entrepreneurs who triumphed over adversity

They’re young, talented – and, until recently, they were homeless. After Independent readers helped raise more than £3m for the Centrepoint Young and Homeless Helpline, Samuel Fishwick meets some of those whose lives the charity has already transformed

Samuel Fishwick
Friday 10 February 2017 15:14
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Freelance photographer Anna McGrane felt she had nowhere left to turn after leaving home at 18 – until she found Centrepoint
Freelance photographer Anna McGrane felt she had nowhere left to turn after leaving home at 18 – until she found Centrepoint

“There’s a stigma about people who are called homeless, as if they’re somehow beneath society,” says Anna McGrane. “People don’t realise it could happen to anyone.”

The 19-year-old is one of 80 residents at a Centrepoint hostel in south London, one of 53 services the organisation runs for the 9,000 16- to 25-year-olds it helps in the UK each year. Figures at the end of January from the Department for Communities and Local Government show more than 4,000 people a night have been sleeping rough on England’s streets, a 16 per cent increase on last year.

Being displaced from your home at a vulnerable age can lead to months or years of misery.

“At one squat I stayed in, there was a guy with a hammer who I was told had tried to kill someone,” former Centrepoint resident Xavier Bernal says. “I was so scared. He came with drugs and said if we didn’t take them he’d think we were from the police. I didn’t, but sometimes I still see him on the street.”

The memories of nights sleeping rough move him to tears.

This winter Independent readers have helped raise more than £3m supporting Centrepoint’s new Young and Homeless Helpline, which is being launched by Prince William and will provide rapid emergency help to young people in danger of being forced out of their homes.

Centrepoint itself provides shelter, mentoring, lessons in money management, cooking and opportunities to get back on one’s feet. Many of the young people seize the opportunity – and run with it. McGrane has set up her own photography business; Bernal is a tech entrepreneur whose start-up connects patients with healthcare professionals. Artists such as Franke Vassell and Cartrain have been provided with studio spaces by the charity after losing their homes.

Alex Bonnick, a PT and athlete who trained with Team GB for the Rio Olympics, says it took huge willpower to pick himself up after he found himself in the hostel system at 17.

“But I always see beyond the obstacle,” he says. “That’s the trick.”

All have messages of hope. Victoria Taiwo, who founded her own clothing company, KBD Tori, became homeless at 21: “When I left, I didn’t know I could do all the things I can do now, but I knew there was more to me. Everybody has something to offer to the world.”

Anna McGrane

At the age of 18, arguments with her family meant that McGrane had to leave her home in south-west London. She won’t disclose why, saying only: “It’s still something I can’t really talk about.”

She’d been unhappy at school, where, because of her love of cameras, she was known as “the photo girl”.

“In the beginning it was a way to capture all the visions I had in my head,” she says. But then her wellbeing unravelled: “My space didn’t feel like my own any more.”

She left school at 14 and approached the council for housing advice. It was awful, she says.

“There was a heavily pregnant woman being told to leave even though she had nowhere to go, and when the police came they told her to sleep in an internet café.”

McGrane was referred to Centrepoint, which offered her a “beautiful room of my own”. There, her passion for photography was allowed to flourish again and she continued with her own freelance business, annamcgrane.co.uk, which has seen her photograph Ellie Goulding through the charity.

Cartrain

Street artist ‘Cartrain’ spent two months sleeping rough with his girlfriend after they were evicted from their flat

“The streets are too dangerous to sleep on at night, so we’d walk them from 11 at night until 6 in the morning,” says Cartrain, 24, a street artist who hides his face in photographs “for anonymity”.

He and his girlfriend spent two months sleeping rough in 2014 after their private landlord evicted them from their flat in Westminster following a row about a broken boiler.

“It kept breaking, we kept complaining, then he started procedures to have us removed,” he shrugs. “We left 10 to 20 minutes before the court bailiffs came.”

They joined the ranks of hidden homeless at train-station food courts, blending in with tired travellers, sleeping there in the mornings, or in an A&E or hospital café.

He was suffering badly from anxiety. After the couple were referred to Centrepoint, the charity found a studio apartment for them in central London, where Cartrain still lives and where he was able to finish his work. His surrealist collages have been complimented by Gilbert & George and drawn praise from fellow street artists such as Stik, and soon he will be exhibiting at the Imitate Modern gallery in Mayfair.

Then who knows? “Maybe even the Tate.”

Sophia Kichou

Sophia Kichou went from homeless to interviewing Prince William for ‘The Big Issue’

Having lost her mother at the age of eight, Sophia Kichou moved from Uganda to London aged 18, hoping to reconnect with her father. It didn’t work out. Although she won’t revisit the experience for her father’s sake, “the relationship just wasn’t there to be had”, she says. “I don’t want to get emotional about it now, but it was tough.”

Alone, she picked up the pieces. “When you’re 18 in the UK you are seen as an adult, and I couldn’t get any other support. I had to move into a hostel system.”

At her lowest point, living in a hostel, she says, “I couldn’t imagine my own future”. But she didn’t give up.

“I had a dream of making my mark on journalism,” she says, and she studied at City University, interned at Sky News and secured mentorship through ITV, all while working as a steward at the Royal Albert Hall and Harrods to support herself.

On her Erasmus year at City, she won awards for her work at The University of North Carolina, though her life is now more settled with a privately rented flat of her own in Tooting, south London, and an internship as a parliamentary assistant.

Her biggest scoop?

“I met HRH Prince William when he came to visit Centrepoint, and, when he heard I wanted to be a journalist, he promised me an interview,” she says.

It was published in The Big Issue in 2015.

Franke Vassell

Franke Vassell picked up his first paintbrush at Centrepoint and was encouraged to pursue a career as an artist

Franke Vassell’s parents didn’t approve of him, he says, so he was shuttled back and forth between home and his aunt’s house throughout his childhood. The 27-year-old grew up in Hackney, with “no direction”.

“I wanted to do art but had no one to help me,” he says. “I felt trapped.” He left at 17, crashing at a two-step recovery centre where “the rent was affordable”, full of “grown men who were coming off drug addictions and alcoholism – but often not coming off”.

“I was too young, and it was the wrong environment for me,” he says. “It was scary.”

At Centrepoint he picked up his first paintbrush, enrolling in art classes supported by the National Gallery at the hostel, in which he was told to apply for art school. He went on to study at The Heatherley School for Fine Art in Chelsea, winning the prize for best student in his first year. Right now he’s working with sculpture.

“I created an Iris, the mythical figure, in bronze. I spent three months working on it, but it’s the most permanent thing I’ve ever created. And that means something.”

The most important thing in his life is his girlfriend, Ruby, a lawyer whom he met four years ago and with whom he now shares a housing association flat in Greenwich. “She just helped me,” he says, “In every way.”

Alex Bonnick

Alex Bonnick – now, a successful personal trainer – was robbed at knifepoint while living on the streets  

“The city is so very busy,” says Alex Bonnick, 26, a personal trainer and gifted athlete who moved to London from Jamaica aged 12 and now lives in a local authority flat in London Bridge. “You try to stop someone on the street and ask them for something, but they don’t want to stop. If you’re young, you struggle more than anything else.”

When he was 16, problems with his mother forced him out of his house, which he’d shared with his stepfather and two siblings. His years in the hostel system were tough.

“Where I lived in Peckham, there were a lot of gangs and it’s very easy to fall into that,” he says. “There was a time when I was on the street and I got robbed by two guys and one of them put a knife on me.

“What was upsetting is that if I was at home that never would have happened.”

He threw himself into athletics. After finding his way to Centrepoint, he received funding for kit and training, plastered posters of Usain Bolt, Dwain Chambers and Yohan Blake on his wall, and studied sports science at St Mary’s University. He has won medals in international long jump competitions, racing in the Olympic Stadium before the London Olympics.

“There were 40,000 people who came to watch,” he smiles. “I always knew I was good at something. I always knew in the back of my head, no matter how many challenges I’d faced, I always knew that I was gonna be successful.”

Victoria Taiwo

Victoria Taiwo found confidence at Centrepoint to pursue a career in business 

At 15, Victoria “Tori” Taiwo, a dance teacher and clothing designer, moved away from her mother to live with another family member. At 21, an argument saw her leave the house and she slept that night in a removal van her boyfriend’s cousin owned, “cold, surrounded by black bags full of my clothes, a broken computer, a broken camera”.

Eventually, she found her way to Centrepoint.

As well as giving her accommodation, it taught her “cooking, money management and how to deal with gas and electricity bills”.

Taiwo, now 30, still has a “fear of rejection”, but it’s something she’s overcome by going into business.

Her Catford home, which Centrepoint helped her find, is “a colourful space with graffiti on every other wall” – the kitchen says, “made with love”, the bathroom, “so fresh, so clean” and the bedroom wall reads, “where the magic happens”.

Xavier Bernal

Xavier Bernal says he’s ‘at peace’ after feeling ‘depressed’ and ‘completely alone’ sleeping rough (Photo: Chris Floyd)

Xavier Bernal, 29, arrived in London from France hoping for a fresh start. After a family breakdown, he left home as he felt that nobody believed in him.

“I wanted to prove I was someone,” he says. “When I came to London I saw all the young people and the big cars and thought, this is it for me.”

An Italian man he’d met put him up in a squat for the night, but by the morning both the man and his possessions had gone, save for the clothes on his back, £20, his passport and “an Eight Mile DVD”.

Months of homelessness followed; he spoke no English and slept rough in Hyde Park.

“Shaking from the cold, sleeping on the top of a hill so I could see danger, I woke up and found someone trying to steal my Nike shoes from my feet,” he says. “Really depressed, completely alone,” he spent his time sleeping on night buses, or in “frightening squats”.

Centrepoint helped him turn things around; he learned English with his housemate in shared accommodation, and pitched his business idea, findoc.co.uk, at The Guardian’s Volunteering Week. It won the People’s Choice Award, although he’s still “always looking for more investment, to prove myself”. Now he privately rents a flat in King’s Cross.

“It’s nice, quiet, it’s my own. I have my own fridge,” he says. “You have no idea how happy it can make you to have your own shampoo. I’m at peace, finally.”

A version of this article first appeared in ES Magazine

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