Doctor Who star Ncuti Gatwa on the moment he realised he was homeless
In 2020, Ncuti Gatwa wrote for The Big Issue magazine about his experiences of sofa surfing as part of a project he was working on with charity Centrepoint. Here, that piece is published online for the first time.
by: Ncuti Gatwa
14 May 2022
Ncuti Gatwa’s life changed overnight when he was named the new Doctor Who earlier this month.
But not so long ago things were a lot different for the star of Netflix global smash Sex Education. Two years ago he wrote for The Big Issue magazine about his experiences of becoming part of the hidden homeless crisis while sofa surfing as a jobbing actor. Here, it is published online for the first time.
When I became homeless, I was successful. I had performed at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and in the West End. I may have been an unknown theatre actor, but, as an actor working regularly, I was a successful one. Until I found myself without a home and with no money of my own.
As an actor you have good and bad spells. My career had been going pretty well until I took the job touring America. When I returned, it took time to remind people I was available. For four months – actually a short time for an actor to be out of work – I couldn’t book any jobs.
You may ask why I hadn’t prepared for this moment. The honest answer is that I had. But I only saved what I could on a jobbing actor’s wage.
Moving into a new place meant paying the deposit and first month’s rent. 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 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.
By the start of the fourth month, I knew I had to give up my flat. One friend helped me make up some of my last month’s rent and offered me their spare room rent free. Great, I thought. On moving-in day, he changed his mind. 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. 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.
To the outside world everything seemed fine. 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.
I remember walking to the station with a girl I met at a group job interview. 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 “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. You are so aware of the space you’re taking up. But what’s the alternative? Your social life is diminished. Friends know if they invite you out they will have to cover it, so they stop asking.
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.
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.
Coronavirus has hit homelessness charities hard. 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.
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. 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.
I was really, really lucky. This weird profession I’ve chosen chops and changes. I was cast in a production outside London – during that play I got an audition for a 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…
When most people think about the Big Issue, they think of vendors selling the Big Issue magazines on the streets – and we are immensely proud of this. In 2022 alone, we worked with 10% more vendors and these vendors earned £3.76 million in collective income. There is much more to the work we do at the Big Issue Group, our mission is to create innovative solutions through enterprise to unlock opportunity for the 14million people in the UK living in poverty.