Sabrina Cohen-Hatton joins The Big Issue as ambassador

"We have a collective responsibility to do more," says inspirational firefighter, award-winning academic and former Big Issue vendor Sabrina Cohen-Hatton as she becomes a Big Issue ambassador

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton has joined The Big Issue as an ambassador – 21 years after selling the magazine after school in Newport town centre as a homeless teenager.

Her remarkable journey from the street to becoming one of the most senior firefighters in the UK is told in this week’s Big Issue. Now, as a Big Issue ambassador, she will be telling her story to inspire other people.

“I am super excited about becoming a Big Issue ambassador,” says Dr Cohen-Hatton.

“I want to tell people who are in the same position as I was that it doesn’t have to define you. Your circumstance doesn’t determine where you end up, just where you start your journey.

“If I can help give someone that spark they may need to change things, that will be a really worthwhile endeavour for me.”

Cohen-Hatton became homeless at 15 – sleeping rough while taking her GCSEs, selling The Big Issue in Newport town centre after school and receiving no help from her local authority.

“There were times I was really hungry. I would eat out of bins,” she says.

“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.

Sabrina Cohen-Hatton on the cover of The Big Issue
Sabrina Cohen-Hatton on the cover of The Big Issue

“I was able to save up three months’ rent in advance, which was £200-a-month, and put down a deposit on a very cheap rented flat outside Newport. It wasn’t much but it was mine. It was Big Issue money that got me my flat. And I felt very proud that I’d earned it.”

After securing a flat, Cohen-Hatton found work at the fire service. Since then, she has blazed a trail. By 25 she was a station commander. The day after she gave birth to her daughter Gabriella, she began work on her PhD. Her research into life-and-death decision making at Cardiff University has won international awards and changed policy and decision-making protocol across the fire service and other emergency services in the UK.

Cohen-Hatton’s story is an inspiration to everyone at the Big Issue.

Stephen Robertson, CEO The Big Issue Foundation said. “Sabrina’s story about personal change, determination and development in the face of great adversity is truly inspirational.

“Her commitment to share and show how the Big Issue offered her a hand up at a time of crisis is a wonderful example of how someone can wrestle control of their life and journey towards a new future. I am totally delighted that Sabrina will be becoming an ambassador for all things Big Issue, challenging stereotypes and inspiring others to see what a hand up can really achieve.”

Cohen-Hatton said: “I want to challenge people who might not know anything about homelessness and might have an idea or a stereotype to remember that those people are humans. 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.

“We have someone who has fallen to the lowest point in their life, who is literally at rock bottom, and we walk past like it is an everyday occurrence. We have a collective responsibility to do more.”

I saw it as an opportunity to rescue other people in a way that no one rescued me

On her escape from the streets into a firefighting career, she said: “I really wanted to join the fire service. Even when I was still homeless, this was what I was aspiring to. I applied to 30 different fire services across the country. I would have gone anywhere, but I got the job in south Wales. And it was all up from there.

“I love that they took me on the strength of who I was. They took someone who on paper didn’t look like a great prospect, a girl who had a great big chunk of NFA [No Fixed Abode] and whose greatest achievement to date was making Big Issue Vendor of the Week – three times, no less! The fire service is a second chance for loads of people.

“But the thing that really attracted me is that it gives you the opportunity to make someone’s life better. Whether proactively making sure they don’t have a fire, or being one of the people trusted to know what to do on someone’s very worst day.

“I knew what rock bottom felt like. I knew what worst possible day felt like. And I certainly knew what vulnerability felt like. I saw it as an opportunity to rescue other people in a way that no one rescued me. That is something that I carry with me every single day when I go to work.”

Read the rest of Sabrina Cohen-Hatton’s amazing story in this week’s Big Issue.

Image: Louise Haywood-Schiefer