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Sabrina Cohen-Hatton on her journey from homelessness to fire chief – via The Big Issue

Sleeping rough at 16, Sabrina Cohen-Hatton survived by selling The Big Issue. She has gone on to become a fire service chief, an author and an inspiration.

This week’s Letter To My Younger Self features chief fire officer, author and former Big Issue vendor Dr. Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, who discusses studying for her GCSEs while homeless and why she decided on a career in the emergency services.

Sixteen was a difficult year for me, all the more difficult because it’s the age when you have all of your ideas about what the future should look like, or what it could look like. And at that point in time, I was sleeping rough, without a roof over my head, without any knowledge of where I might be the next day, or where my next meal might be coming from.

When I look back, I know really horrible things were about to happen to me. But if I was to speak to my younger self, I would just say – you’re stronger than you think. And you’re stronger than anyone else thinks. So don’t let those negative sounds drown out your inner voice. Because it was really easy for that to happen.

When you know people make assessments of you based on how you’re presenting or your circumstances and they completely write you off, it’s so easy to write yourself off.

My backstory is certainly not unique to me. My father died when I was nine and I was in a single-parent household with a mum who found it incredibly difficult to cope and struggled terribly with her mental health.

We lived in abject poverty for several years as a result. When somebody goes to war with their demons, everyone around them gets hit by the shrapnel.

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We were in a really volatile situation by the time I was 15, a crisis point where it was just too much. My mum loved me dearly but she didn’t have the capacity to be able to look after me properly. It was then that I started to sleep rough.

2016 – Enjoying family time with Mike and their daughter. Photo: Courtesy of Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

I sat my GSCEs when I was homeless and stashed my books in a box in a derelict building because I didn’t want to alert social services by asking for a school locker. Eventually all my books were ripped up in that building by a proper neo-Nazi skinhead – he saw my surname Cohen on my grammar book and he attacked me.

He put out a cigarette out on my arm. He really went to town on me. It was a horrible experience. After that I kept my books in a box in the Big Issue office. And I kept studying. I think I saw qualifications as a ticket out of there.

You can’t control what life throws at you or even how you feel about it, frankly, but you can control what you do about it next. I didn’t want to throw away all the work I’d put in just because life had thrown me a difficult hand. I got six As and three Bs – so much better than I thought I’d do under the circumstances.

One teacher actually saw me selling The Big Issue and he looked at me, looked down at his feet and crossed the road to try to avoid me

The school wasn’t particularly supportive when I was going through the most difficult time. One teacher actually saw me selling The Big Issue and he looked at me, looked down at his feet and crossed the road to try to avoid me. And I knew at that point, literally, nobody cared.

I remember I just burst into tears, I was so upset. You could see people writing you off with their eyes, and it made you feel ashamed.

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I was quite surprised by how many people were rude or abusive. And as much as you tell yourself you don’t care what people think, it’s human nature to care. So it does become part of who you are and how you see yourself. But there was also a hardcore of people who were very kind, who took the time to stop and talk.

I felt the simplest action of just asking my name rehumanised me after so many interactions that felt dehumanising.

Selling The Big Issue gave me that important feeling of earning, of having hard cash in my hand that I had spent eight hours that day earning. When you then go and use that money to buy something hot to eat – there was no better feeling, truly.

You might be spending the night in a derelict building, pushing dirty needles out of the way so you could lie down to sleep… I remember stacking up old paint pots so if I was attacked I could throw paint over that person to give me a few extra seconds to get away.

But when you’ve been standing for hours in the cold and the rain, and you’re soaking wet, and you go and buy yourself a hot coffee and hot toast – my god, that was so satisfying.

2020 – In her official uniform at an awards ceremony. Photo: Courtesy of Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

I remember one particular time around Christmas when I was huddled in a shop doorway on a high street with some other Big Issue vendors. All the Christmas decorations were up and everyone seemed to be happy and doing that Christmas thing, embodying the Christmas spirit. I don’t think I’d ever felt so lonely or so sad.

If I could go back in time I’d put my arm around myself at that moment and say: ‘Hey, you know, it’ll be okay’. And I’d remind myself about my dog, Menace. He was my stray dog for a stray girl. He was amazing. Dogs have always been a huge part of my life, giving me companionship and joy. I didn’t have much but I always had Menace.

I think, in a way, I wanted to rescue other people in a way that nobody had been able to rescue me

The reason I wanted to work for the fire service is because as a firefighter you’re trusted to know what to do around people who are having the worst day of their lives. They are at rock bottom. They’re desperate. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know who to turn to. And I felt like I could relate to that.

I’ve felt all those feelings of despair and desperation and anxiety. I’ve experienced loss and learned in technicolour about the fragility of life. I think the pain of those losses actually made me a better person. It increased my capacity for love. So I wanted to help people.

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Every time you buy a copy of The Big Issue, subscribe or donate, you are helping our vendors to work their way out of poverty by providing 'a hand up not a hand out.' You’re helping Big Issue vendors achieve their #BigWish

I think, in a way, I wanted to rescue other people in a way that nobody had been able to rescue me. That was why the fire service attracted me. And the amazing thing about the service is they saw past what on paper didn’t present like a fantastic option.

They took me on the strength of who they believed I could be. For me, that was something that was very special. It’s become a philosophy I’ve tried to live by.

My academic work came out of a day I went to a fire where another firefighter had been quite severely burned and there was a one in four chance it was my husband Mike. I was torn between the role of a loved one, with all the fears that go with that, and the role of a responsible responder. It wasn’t him, but the experience got me looking at what we could do to make that situation better for people in the future.

I found that 80 per cent of injuries across all industries, including the fire service, happen as a result of human error. So I did a psychology degree with the Open University, then I did a part-time PhD, both while I was still working full time.

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I’d go into the lab at five o’clock in the morning, I’d run my experiment, I’d go to work about 8.30am for the full shift, go home and put my newborn baby daughter to bed. I had seven years to do a part-time PhD, but in the end they registered me as a full- time student and I finished it in three.

If I could talk to anyone one last time it would be my dad, without a shadow of a doubt. He was so good-natured and so funny. And so, so loving.

The sky could fall down when you were with him and he wouldn’t notice, you know, he was that kind of a dad.

It was amazing, the way he dealt with his brain tumour. He never gave up. They told him he had six months, and he lived several years. He just kept fighting and defying all of the odds.

He died when I was nine and we’d had this big argument the night before it happened. I went to bed being really belligerent, as usual, refusing to come down, and I stayed in bed and cried myself to sleep. Then I woke up and he was gone. That was a really painful lesson that I’ve carried with me for ever. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll make damn sure it’s never too late again.

If I could have one more conversation with him I’d apologise for being such a little sod. And then I’d thank him for his influence, and for making me me.

The Heat Of The Moment: A Firefighter’s Stories Of Life And Death Decisions by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton is out now (Transworld, £8.99)

Interview: Jane Graham @Janeannie

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Support The Big Issue and our vendors this Christmas

Every time you buy a copy of The Big Issue, subscribe or donate, you are helping our vendors to work their way out of poverty by providing 'a hand up not a hand out.' You’re helping Big Issue vendors achieve their #BigWish

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