Seyi Obakin has been at the helm of Centrepoint for the past 11 years and is one of the few leaders from a BAME background in charge of a nationwide organisation. In the second of our interviews, he discusses the importance of having diverse leadership and the challenges of tackling homelessness while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Minority representation in leadership is changing all the time, but there is still a long way to go, and the big question is how to reach the destination faster?
Seyi Obakin is CEO of Centrepoint and one of the few BAME leaders to make it to the top of such a huge organisation in the UK. He believes that now is a good time for BAME people to be making a case for more diversity at, what he describes as “points of leverage” in organisations, that are outside of senior leadership.
“First, we have to identify what those different points of leverage are?” he says. “Then ensure there is the diversity of thought and a clear indication that change is happening at each juncture. That’s the next bridge for us to cross on this journey for greater diversity and inclusion in business.”
Things have to change because “the fact is the communities that most businesses serve are diverse. However, in the past, those communities were more accepting of their lot than they are now.”
“BAME people must remember this: we have allies now, lots of them,” he argues. “That’s why, if you are a business operating in the same way you were two years ago and don’t see a need to evolve, you may be in for a rude awakening.
“Communities up and down are outraged about unfairness, and they want organisations and businesses to do something about it. So, it is a competitive advantage to respond in the right way.”
Diverse teams bring diversity of thought
Having a diverse leadership team at Centrepoint is important for the work that the charity does in helping the young homeless to get off the streets. Especially in London, where two-thirds of those needing the charity’s support are from BAME backgrounds.
“Gut feelings, instincts, don’t land on us from outer space,” says Obakin. “They are based on a collage of events and experiences that are formed over many years. So, where you have diverse teams, you get a rich diversity of thought, enabling you to look at things from different angles before planting your flag.
“You make a decision and once you do, know you’ve made it with the clarity of thought that’s taken account of multiple experiences because that’s what brings about the most holistic and best results.”
Obakin’s 11 years at the helm of Centrepoint has, he says, given him a sense of purpose. As a teenager, he wasn’t sure what career he wanted to follow, so chose subjects that he was both good at and would offer flexibility. After taking a degree in economics, he joined the Civil Service then, attracted by accountancy, moved first to PWC then corporate banking and mortgage banking, before joining Housing 21. The latter gave him his first exposure to housing and its related issues, from overcrowding and slum properties to poor landlords and high rents.
After a short stint in change management, he joined Centrepoint, attracted by the pairing of housing with the needs of young people. It allowed him to combine his accountancy, business know-how and change management skills with a personal purpose.
Maintaining services and safety
Like other charities and businesses throughout the country – and the world – the coronavirus pandemic has meant a tough seven months, with question marks over how to maintain services, while keeping staff and young people safe.
“When we saw the pandemic was starting to emerge, I was already thinking, ‘how do I persuade 1,500 young people who are going to sleep in our beds tonight to wash their hands for 20 seconds, multiple times every single day.’ That’s before we get to the staff who have to work with them,” he recalls.
“All our hostels and services are different and look after young people with varying needs. Hence, the solutions required to manage the situation needed to respect that.”
Then there was making plans for people to self-isolate, where that would be and, not least, obtaining sufficient PPE while trying to attract funding. The good news was that an appeal for financial support was answered. As well as money, donors generously provided face masks, sanitisers, gloves and aprons.
In Obakin’s view, the Government’s Everyone in Scheme, whereby rough sleepers were given rooms in hotels closed in the initial lockdown, demonstrated the possibility of overcoming homelessness. Since hotels returned to their owners, however, there has been an inadequate response to providing continued support for the homeless.
“I know that the Government is putting a lot of effort into trying to find places for homeless people coming out of hotels, but that effort must be redoubled,” he warns. “We must move faster – and it is possible to move more quickly – to find all those homeless people a place to live.
“There’s been a lot of talk about Housing First as a model of a solution. But that only works if you have housing. Centrepoint has been developing what we describe as independent living for young people at risk of homelessness but can’t live independently. They are working but can’t afford a place to live.”
This solution would involve building a block of 50 houses, using a modular format, that would provide 260 rooms. That type of construction can be done in 12-16 weeks – planning permission is the main stumbling block. It can take up to a year to get approval.
“We can spend endless time arguing about what the right standards are when people are saying they just need a place to put their head,” he states. “We really need to do something about planning; then we need the Government to commit to tackling this problem.”
Businesses could help by giving young people job opportunities. Centrepoint works with both the academically inclined who could go on to further education and those more suited to vocational training.
Obakin cites the example of how a young person was helped to a traineeship in warehousing. “They were so impressed with him that they’d offered him an apprenticeship in Warehousing Level 2. We need to see more of those things. These young people will enhance your businesses if you give them a chance.”
As a charity, Centrepoint is reliant on funding, and the pandemic has put a stop to many fundraising activities. One casualty was the annual Sleep Out. Last year 1,200 people slept on the streets in November and raised £1.5 million. This year, people were invited to Stay Up all night on October 8th, which brought in £117,354.
Staying up actually mirrors how rough sleepers behave – they stay awake at night to keep safe and then sleep during the day.
Remove the triggers causing homelessness
Obakin urges businesses and individuals to join Centrepoint’s campaigner database and to understand better that young people don’t become homeless through any fault of their own.
“It’s family breakdown, it’s leaving care, it’s domestic abuse, it’s harassment,” he states. “We want a better understanding. If you join our campaigner database, you can help promote that understanding while helping us promote solutions that work.
What are the solutions? “First, there needs to be a substantial reduction in young people that become homeless. None of the triggers that cause it are, in my view, insurmountable. If we can reduce it to functional zero, those who fall through the cracks would be small enough for us to assemble real-time data on them. So, we know who and where they are, and we can define and devise solutions with them to help them move on quickly.
“The third thing is the housing that I mentioned so that, when young people are ready to move on, there’s something they can afford to move on to.”
Given a magic wand, Obakin would “obliterate the triggers” so that nobody becomes homeless.