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7 February 2024

Seyi Obakin Q&A: “I yearn for a government that will end homelessness”

The charity leader on great team spirit, investigative shows and optimism.

By New Statesman

Seyi Obakin was born in Nigeria in 1961. He worked in banking before moving into housing, and since 2009 has been the chief executive of the youth homelessness charity Centrepoint.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being sprayed all over with muddy water by a passing car while walking down a pavement with my mother. I was around five years old, nicely dressed up in new clothes, heading to a family event.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, my parents were my heroes because they always seemed to save the day. These days, I see heroes all around me. Despite the trauma some of them have had, so many people leave Centrepoint with education, skills, a job and/or a home.

What book last changed your thinking?

Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and Kim Scott’s Radical Candor. Whether you are in a small team or a large one, the principles of building great team spirit are the same and Lencioni and Scott address them eloquently.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Youth homelessness. I have spent considerable time helping people who are affected by it to turn their lives around.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

I admire people who envision a better society and work to deliver it, such as William Beveridge and Clement Attlee, or Obafemi Awolowo. He led a regional government in Nigeria that delivered free education and free healthcare, transforming the lives of millions.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

The future has so much to offer that intrigues me. I think rapidly accelerating technology and the need to tackle climate change will animate a radical shift.

What TV show could you not live without?

I like investigative shows, which for me are akin to solving puzzles.

Who would paint your portrait?

Lanre Olagoke. His story is inspiring, and he is an exceptional artist. He was a homeless drug addict in London who taught himself to paint, became a celebrated artist and pioneered the first ever Soho Arts Fair, and the Art-Alive Arts Trust. I love his passion for using art to give young people a chance to belong.

What’s your theme tune?

“Awesome” by Charles Jenkins always brings me perspective and balance.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

The solutions you find to the issues you face will almost certainly give rise to other issues. So life is a continuous series of problem-solving. I have embraced it.

What’s currently bugging you?

The fatalism that underpins the persistence of homelessness. It can be ended, and I yearn for a government that will commit itself to doing so.

When were you happiest?

On a cold December day in 2022, on a road in Peckham that I had visited many times. The first time I visited, it was a block of eight flats in poor condition. But that day, Reuben House stood as a block of 33 right-sized homes for young people where rent would be set at around a third of their income, no matter their salary. For me it encapsulated everything that Centrepoint is about – seeing potential, not giving up and empowering young people to thrive.

Are we all doomed?

No! Humanity has always had difficulties, and we have always found ways to overcome them. We are living now in a time of alternative facts, post-truths and selfishness, but I am an optimist and I think we will pull away from the precipice and get past this too, as we have during previous challenging times. We will know better times than these.

[See also: Marcus du Sautoy Q&A: “As a child, I planned to marry Top Cat”]

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This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?