EXCLUSIVE: Sex Education star Ncuti Gatwa on his experience of homelessness

Writing exclusively for The Big Issue, actor Ncuti Gatwa, star of Netflix hit Sex Education, recalls how he became one of the thousands hidden homeless and imagines how tough it would be to be sofa surfing during lockdown

Ncuti Gatwa, the breakout star of global smash hit TV series Sex Education, has written exlusively for The Big Issue about how he became homeless before landing his big break.

For, although he was a successful stage actor before securing the role of Eric Effiong in the Netflix phenomenon and had performed with the Kneehigh Theatre company, at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and in London’s West End, four months without paid acting work left him homeless and surviving on one meal per day.

Writing for this week’s edition of The Big Issue, 27-year-old Gatwa reveals how, in the months before he landed the part in Sex Education alongside Gillian Anderson and Asa Butterworth, he found himself “without a home and with no money of my own”.

When I lost weight due to only eating once a day, people said how lean and healthy I looked

Gatwa returned from a touring show in the US to find himself out of work for the first time.

“Moving into a new place meant paying the deposit and first month’s rent,” he explains. “I started temping but had to take time off to audition for roles I wasn’t getting. When I didn’t get enough temping work, I fell behind on my rent. By the end of my second month of unemployment, I was out of savings.

“Being a 25 year old man with no money or job affected my sense of self-worth. Rejection became unbearable. Auditions weren’t just acting jobs, they were lifelines.”

“I couldn’t tell my parents because I already felt like a mess up. I’d been warned that acting was an unstable profession and knew my parents couldn’t support me financially. I had assured them I was going to work as hard as possible to make this career happen so their hard work, as immigrants who fled Rwanda and sacrificed everything for me, wouldn’t be in vain. But I was falling short on my promise.

“I felt guilty, ashamed, a bit pathetic.”

And when an offer to help him pay off his arrears and let him live rent free until he got back on his feet fell through, Gatwa faced a stark realisation.

“As I was standing on the street with my suitcases, one thought came into my head: ‘I’m homeless.’ I couldn’t have got through without two wonderful friends,” he writes.

“One made me stay with her and the other wired me money for food every week. Their generosity was incredible but difficult to accept as it meant accepting what my situation had become – and it was a situation I could barely comprehend.”

DID YOU KNOW…

There are currently around 2,000 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.

He had temping work in the world’s most famous upmarket department store but Gatwa’s situation remained precarious.

“To the outside world everything seemed fine,” he writes.

“I was temping at Harrods. I’d wake from the double bed I shared with my best friend, leave the house in a slick-looking trench coat and polished brogues without a hair out of place. I was complimented for looking so presentable.

“When I lost weight due to only eating once a day, people said how lean and healthy I looked.”

Ncuti and Pushkin
Ncuti with Pushkin the cat during the actor's time sofa surfing

Even getting to temp jobs or auditions proved difficult. In the article, Gatwa recalls regularly using his smart appearance to get away without paying for the tube.

“I remember walking to the station with a girl I met at a group job interview,” he writes.

“I had to pretend to take a call because I was so embarrassed – by then, getting the train was a play in three acts: 1) I’ve left my wallet at home 2) My phone is out of battery so I can’t use Apple Pay 3) I promise it won’t happen again. I always got away with it because of how I was dressed. I wondered how many other suited and booted Londoners had also ‘left their wallets at home’.

“I learnt recently that one in five young people were in the same boat as me, sofa surfing, around that time. I was shocked, but not surprised.

“Sofa surfing is tough. No matter how nice your friends are there is a limit. I could see the strain I was putting on them. It felt awful being that guy – using the electric and water but not contributing. And sharing a bed with someone you’re not intimate with, no matter how close you are or how nice they are, gets annoying.”

I felt very alone and trapped, like I was the only one going through this experience

The experience took a toll on Gatwa’s mental health.

“I developed depression. But I never let people know how down I was feeling. That would have been another burden for my friends to take on. My mind became my biggest enemy,” he writes.

“I felt very alone and trapped, like I was the only one going through this experience. But the sad reality is that last year, 110,000 young people approached their local council because they were homeless or at risk of being homeless. That’s why I’m getting involved with Centrepoint. I could have done with them during my time sofa surfing.”

Gatwa is currently, he writes, “living and isolating in a lovely flat in North London” with his best friend.

“My lockdown, for the most part, has been quite pleasant. This is something I can say from a place of privilege.

“But I keep discussing with my flatmate how I would have survived during Covid-19 if Sex Education hadn’t come into my life. I would have been screwed.”

Since his rapid rise to fame, which has included winning the Breakthrough Award at this year’s Broadcasting Press Guild Awards, Gatwa has been keen to use his increased profile to help others experiencing homelessness.

“Coronavirus has hit homelessness charities hard,” he writes. “There’s been a huge loss of income. I’ve visited Centrepoint, met some of their young people, and seen first-hand the amazing work they do providing emotional and mental health support, along with education and training.

“The Centrepoint Helpline receives daily calls from people made homeless as a direct result of the pandemic. I can’t imagine what I would have done had this happened when I was sofa surfing.

“I’d have been a high risk, travelling around London for temp work. And where could I have self-isolated? Centrepoint would have been a lifeline for me, just as it is now to so many young people.”

Since first talking about his experience of homelessness in The Big Issue last year, Gatwa has also heard from young people going through similar difficult times.

I think about young people isolated in dangerous environments with abusive or neglectful parents, where work or school may have been a place of safety

“A girl reached out to me on social media when I first spoke to The Big Issue last year about how I’d struggled with homelessness,” he recalls.

“She was a fan of Sex Education, loved my character, and related to him. From her bio, I could see she was of Jamaican and Nigerian heritage. She was sofa surfing because her mother kicked her out when she came out as lesbian.

“She said my story inspired her, and that she couldn’t wait to bounce back the way I have. Her DM wasn’t a pity party – I could feel her energy from her writing – but the situation was affecting her mental health. I think a lot about what that girl is doing now.

“One in four homeless young people are LGBT, according to the Albert Kennedy Trust. And around two thirds of young people at Centrepoint become homeless following a family breakdown.

“I think about young people isolated in dangerous environments with abusive or neglectful parents, where work or school may have been a place of safety. Charities are doing all they can. But it’s getting more difficult as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.”

Gatwa’s luck changed. He won a role in a play that included accommodation.

“I planned to save that money, and, when it ran out, move back to Scotland and quit acting,” he writes.

“But during that play I got an audition for an unknown Netflix show starring Gillian Anderson. Fast forward from 2018 to 2020 and I am now able to sit comfortably in my flat and peacefully isolate. Had Netflix, Sex Education and Auntie Gillian not come along, it would have been a very, very different story…”

Find out more about Centrepoint here

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