Housing

BBC Radio 1 star Dean McCullough shares his experience of homelessness: 'You don't have to be lonely'

It’s time to “widen the narrative” about what homelessness is, Radio 1 DJ Dean McCullough says.

Dean McCullough / photo: Joel Goodman

BBC Radio 1 DJ and presenter Dean McCullough never thought of himself as homeless, because he wasn’t sleeping rough.

“We weren’t living on the street, we were living on my aunt’s house on a sofa,” he said. “I was moving between houses on a regular basis.”

But it’s time to “widen the narrative” about what homelessness is, the radio star has said, as the number of young people with no fixed address surges.

Hidden homelessness – where people are forced to couch surf and stuck in temporary accommodation – is disturbingly common; it impacts one in 182 people living in England, including 140,000 children.

This kind of instability takes a “huge” mental toll on young people, said McCullough.

“I have problems with my possessions and feeling like I need to take care of absolutely everything around me,” he explained. “That comes down to moving from house to house and not ever feeling like anything was ever truly mine.”

Dean McCullough and his family had no fixed address for a year after his parent’s relationship broke down; he also spent several years couch surfing when he moved to London to pursue a musical theatre career.

“As soon as I sensed any kind of danger, I’d be straight out of [where I was staying]… for a long time I had no fixed address,” he said. “I would go out on the Thursday and just stay out all weekend because I just didn’t want to go home.”

The radio presenter – who hasn’t spoken publicly about these experiences before – is sharing his story to help launch Centrepoint’s new youth prevention strategy, a programme he hopes will give young people an “arsenal of tools” to cope with instability at home.

Currently in trial stage at six schools across Manchester and London, the Centrepoint strategy is aimed at identifying and supporting at-risk school pupils in England.

“It’s around screening and identifying children who may be at risk of homelessness at some point, and then putting in support to alleviate those risks,” explains Stephen Elder, the national prevention manager for Centrepoint.

“It’s about identifying the cracks before they turn into breaks, so that rather than coming at it from a crisis response, we’re coming at it from early prevention.”

Children are surveyed on key aspects regarding their home life and mental health. Those that are flagged at risk are provided with a series of tailored interventions from family mediation, health support and homelessness education.

Dean McCullough told just two teachers when he was couch surfing as a child – but they provided “vital” support.

“Without me even realising, they were supporting me on a daily basis by distracting me, by giving me a little bit more of their time, by checking it on me and by supporting me to be creative and to dance, to take part in activities that that were just making me feel good,” he said.

“[They were] guiding me away from being in crisis… I don’t know where I would have been if I hadn’t spoken to my teacher.”

The Centrepoint trial schools are systematising this kind of response, providing their pupils with tailored wraparound support.

Janine Hope, the vice principal at Manchester Enterprise Academy (one of the schools participating in the trial), described the early results as “fantastic.”

“One of the impacts has been that students who have been supported by Centrepoint have noted their increased resilience and confidence which will go a long way in helping them achieve better outcomes, which is all we want as teachers, mentors and a school,” she said.

Youth homelessness is an epidemic in the UK. Just under 136,000 young people approached their council as homeless or about to become homeless in 2022 to 2023, according to recent Centrepoint research. That equates to 372 per day and a new young person facing the threat of homelessness every four minutes.

In January, a collective of 120 youth homelessness charities, including Centrepoint, YMCA and Depaul UK, launched a petition calling for a national strategy to end youth homelessness in the UK.

Working in schools will be key to this strategy, Elder said.

“Our pilots in Manchester and London are just the first steps towards a fully realised strategy that charities and councils across England will be able tap into and use to help address increasing levels of youth homelessness everywhere,” he urged.

Early prevention can have huge knock on effects. More than half of rough sleepers have done so for the first time before the age of 25, so charities believe one of the best ways to end rough sleeping is to stop young people ever needing to sleep rough.

Young people in precarious situations need to know that they aren’t alone, Dean McCullough said.

“You can find stability in the unstable,” he said. “Your school can help, your teachers can help. They want to help – you don’t have to feel lonely and isolated.”

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