“There were times I was really hungry. I would eat out of bins. I was too young to claim any benefits – they offered me £15 a fortnight ‘bridging allowance’. Don’t spend it all at once.”
Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, 36, is one of the most senior firefighters in the country, having taken charge of the service’s 2017 response to terror attacks in Finsbury Park and Westminster in London. She’s also a prize-winning academic and author.
But it was a long road to get there – Cohen-Hatton was left homeless as a teenager after her father’s death.
This resulted in her sleeping rough while taking her GCSEs, having fallen through the cracks and out of reach of support services.
When you are so used to feeling vulnerable, you see everything as a threat.
Cohen-Hatton describes the state of being vulnerable and constantly on the lookout for danger while homeless as “like living in an episode of Danger Mouse”.
She says: “When you are so used to feeling vulnerable, you see everything as a threat. I used to look for escape routes all the time and create booby traps so I could get away. There were a few times I was bloody glad that I did as well.
— Paul McNamee (@PauldMcNamee) April 12, 2019
“I was very fortunate. I never got into drugs,” she continues. “But one of the things that was really apparent is that you can’t live that life and not be touched by them. By the time I was 17, I had been to seven funerals of people I was homeless with who had overdosed or had a bad batch.
“It happens around you. One minute they are there, the next that is them gone forever. All of these people are human beings, someone’s son or daughter. Some were mums or dads. And that is it, life is snuffed out. You don’t get another shot, that is game over. And that was really, really hard.”
But, she says one decision turned her life around: Choosing to be a Big Issue vendor.
Not only did it help her earn a living, but it helped her reintegrate back into society.
“So that was the great thing about The Big Issue. It gave me an opportunity to earn. It gave me some dignity back at a time when I felt like I didn’t have any.
“When you live that life, you feel invisible. You feel like a ghost in society. If someone in the street falls over, people rush over to help, but there you are on the street corner with no food in your belly, nowhere to live, no clean clothes and people walk past you like you are not there.”
- The Heat Of The Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making from a Firefighter by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton is out now