Sabrina Cohen-Hatton on how sharing her homelessness story changed her life
In 2019, senior firefighter Sabrina Cohen-Hatton revealed she spent two years homeless as a teenager and sold The Big Issue. Her story inspired millions and led to awards, speaking engagements and even an appearance on Desert Island Discs. We spoke to her about a remarkable year…
One of the country’s most senior fire officers revealed that she had been homeless for two years as a teenager, first sleeping rough in Newport in Wales at the age of 15. She began selling The Big Issue, eventually saved enough money for the deposit on a small rented flat, and joined the fire service aged 18. She had not looked back since.
“I was worried about sharing my story,” she says now. “It took several attempts to transition from the streets to having secure accommodation, a job and then what felt like a reintegration back into society. So you try to look forward and not back.
“It ended up being something I shut away in a box, and I closed that box so tightly that the lid would never come off. I was petrified, but the response was overwhelmingly positive.”
It started with a tweet. But not just any tweet – she agonised over this one for four hours. This was a truth Cohen-Hatton had guarded, in part, she says, because of the internalised shame that life on the street can leave you with and the stigma still attached to homelessness.
But as she launched her book, The Heat of The Moment, which blends her pioneering research into how firefighters deal with life-and-death situations with snatches of her own history, Cohen-Hatton decided it was time to share this important part of her life.
In April 2019, we helped bring her story to a wider audience, putting her on the cover of the magazine she used to sell. In that article, Cohen-Hatton explained how she was either sleeping rough or vulnerably housed for two long years.
“We used to sleep in the doorway of a disused church until it was boarded up. I would sleep in subways until I woke up to a guy urinating on my sleeping bag. I sold The Big Issue every day after school,” she told us.
“One teacher even saw me selling the magazine, but crossed the road to avoid me. When you live that life, you feel invisible. By the time I was 17, I had been to seven funerals of people I was homeless with.”
Christmas brings back memories. “I have a vivid memory of sitting on the street, watching mothers and children holding hands and smiling, with bags bulging full of presents to bring joy on Christmas morning. The ability to give a gift felt so completely out of my reach. I felt so alone, completely isolated from the rest of society. I just remember this overwhelming feeling of sadness.
“If you fast forward to Christmas now, it’s completely different. Often [her fellow firefighter husband] Mike or I are on duty, so it’s not a traditional scene – but we have a warm home, food on our table and are able to share gifts with each other. It’s a world away and I’m grateful every single day.
“In my job, I also see a lot of loss, and there’s something particularly poignant about it at Christmas. So I never, ever take those who I’m lucky enough to love for granted. I hold them close. And at this time of year, I hold them a little bit closer.”
In last year’s Christmas edition of The Big Issue, Cohen-Hatton – who was also appointed Chief Fire Officer of the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service during 2019 – looked back at her decision to tell her story, and opened up about her eventful year.
Sabrina Cohen-Hatton on… telling her truth
I was worried about sharing my story. It took me several attempts to transition from the streets to having secure accommodation, a job and then what felt like a reintegration back into society, which previously I didn’t feel had any place for me. I had to move somewhere I didn’t know, with people who didn’t know me or my history and wouldn’t judge or look at me with pity. So you try to look forward and not back. It ended up being something I shut away in a box, and I closed that box so tightly that the lid would never come off.
Let me be clear, there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, but when people abuse you or look but don’t actually see you every day, it is impossible not to have some deep-seated sense of shame. I was having bad dreams about people knowing about my history.
I’m also at a point in my life where I’m a senior fire brigade leader and you’re supposed to be infallible. Everyone looks to you for direction. So putting my hand up and saying, ‘I’ve had this experience and I’m vulnerable’ – and doing it quite publicly – was really difficult.
Sabrina on… her message to others facing similar challenges
There are so many people in that same position today. And, it’s important to me that people know that their circumstances don’t have to define them.
It’s not limited to people who are experiencing homelessness either. There are four million children living in poverty today who may feel like their future is shaped and limited, not by their potential, but by their opportunities. I needed them to know that your situation is just your situation – it doesn’t have to determine your future. And it doesn’t determine your value.
I also wanted to change perceptions, for people to see homelessness more as an experience and not as an identity.
Sabrina Cohen-Hatton on… public response to her story
I was petrified, but the response was overwhelmingly positive. Even now, when I stand up in front of people, I find it intensely difficult. It will take time for me to process. I’m sitting on years of trauma.
But some responses have been jaw-dropping. Firefighters get in touch who have shared similar experiences, in terms of early trauma or some type of homelessness. Every story is different, but they’ve had experiences they could relate to mine – breakdowns or issues with mental health such as my mother had experienced.
It was so meaningful to know I’d been able to reach out to people in my fire family. And I got a message from someone who used to sell The Big Issue. They said, ‘Now I won’t feel ashamed to tell people that I sold The Big Issue for three years’. When I’m having a hard day, I open these messages and know I have done the right thing.
Sabrina on… reconnecting with The Big Issue
I first met [founder] John Bird in a Big Issue office when I was 16. What struck me was that he gave a damn, which is a rare quality when you are experiencing homelessness. So when we were down to talk at the same conference this year – and this was before I had spoken publicly about my experience – I made contact.
After my interview in The Big Issue, I was amazed that the papers picked it up. I feel completely humbled that there’s been this level of interest. One thing I find challenging is that I know there is nothing special about me. Everyone’s story is different, but there are still so many people in the same situation.
I know we can’t change society in a day, but if I can shine a light or make people more aware, get individuals to think differently, it might just be an easier journey. That is why I wanted to do even more to support The Big Issue and how my ambassador role came about.
Sabrina Cohen-Hatton on… a crazy year
Every time I would think that is the pinnacle, something else happened.Desert Island Discs was brilliant. It is such an institution. I took two friends and we made a day of it, which was lovely.
It was so emotional. The bit you hear is just a snapshot – we recorded for nearly three hours. There were times I had tears streaming down my face because I was recalling such emotional times. It was a cathartic experience and [presenter] Lauren Laverne was wonderful.
I underestimated the response. Kathy Burke tweeted me and I couldn’t play it cool – she knows I’m alive!
OMG…OMG…OMG…@KathyBurke knows who I am! Play it cool, trigger…play it cool ????????????
Seriously though…now I've stopped hyperventilating, thank you so much for taking the time out to share such a lovely message…You have quite literally made my whole week ???? https://t.co/NeNzrlXGGc
Lauren got in touch afterwards to make sure I was OK, because the response was so great she knew it could be overwhelming. That was a lovely touch. It was a privilege to be on. And I’m extra proud that I got my favourite band IDLES played on Radio 4 for the first time!
The Homeless World Cup was also incredible. I absolutely bloody love [actor] Michael Sheen – he was so genuine and authentic and caring. I enjoyed it so much that I cancelled plans to be away and went back for the final with my family. I wanted them to share this incredible, uplifting experience. It was extra special being in Cardiff, where I’ve spent a lot of time and slept rough a couple of times – it felt like coming full circle.
But one of the best things 2019 has given me is the opportunity to show my daughter that it’s all right to find something frightening and do it anyway. To share my story with her has been really emotional but so powerful. I’ve seen a sense of kindness grow in her over the past 12 months that makes me incredibly proud.
This interview with Sabrina Cohen-Hatton originally appeared in The Big Issue issue #1389, 14-26 December 2019