Interview: A source of home truths - Anthony Lawton, chief executive, Centrepoint

Alison Bennett
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Residing at the helm of national homelessness charity Centrepoint and with a CV that includes teaching and working at the former National Youth Bureau, Anthony Lawton has a formidable pedigree in working with young people.

He says it's something he fell into rather than following a grand plan. "I never had a big career plan and I'm sceptical about telling young people you have to have a career plan," he says. "Mine just evolved and now I've worked across the private, public and voluntary sectors."

After spending six years at the top at Centrepoint, next week Lawton will collect the OBE he was awarded in the summer. He says this was a moment of great pride, although he admits it means even more because his children approve.

"I was chuffed that my children are proud about it," he says. "My mother was in public service and my father was too. They both died when I was young and even though I'm 55 now, I still think they'd have liked it."

In 2009, Centrepoint will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Lawton says as well as celebrating the occasion - with events that he is keeping firmly under wraps - the organisation will use the anniversary to help it move forward.

"We will be 50 when several key government targets are required to be met," he said. "Ending child poverty, having to build three million new homes, having significantly overhauled the learning and training system and now the 10-year youth strategy, Aiming High for Young People. All of those focus on the next 10 years. By 2020 we would like all young people to have a home. To the greatest extent people aren't focusing enough on the importance of the home but instead on responses and interventions - all of which won't work unless people have the stability of a home behind them."

Lawton is vocal about what he feels needs to be done to combat youth homelessness, although he says the government has instigated some encouraging changes. "We need to do more of what works," he says. "We know that good youth work - including the work we do with residential housing - works. We know it helps to restore people who need it and helps them to develop, learn and grow.

"We need to scale up all the things that work and we do need more of it, as some young people's lives are getting more complex. The figures show there is still a percentage that really need interventions and help."

However, despite encouraging changes from central government, Lawton labels some local authority commissioning as "immature" when working with Centrepoint to deliver youth homelessness services. "Local government too often tries to move risks on to us that they should be dealing with more," he says.

"For example, one local authority wanted us to move from having a long-term contract to short-term contracts, dealing with them when and where they wanted. There was no understanding that from our point of view, that was risky behaviour. We need to get local commissioners focused on outcomes rather than just input and processes."

Centrepoint has released its annual report for 2006/07 but in terms of going forward Lawton says he thinks about the next five years, not just the next 12 months. He says an important part of Centrepoint's work will be to emphasise the importance of a young person having a home, and not just a roof over their heads. "Having a sound home for young people is essential before a lot of other things can happen," he says.

"The development of raising the formal learning age risks being difficult because it will only work if young people have got a home. Some 16- and 17-year-olds haven't got a family home so we've got to make sure we're providing support for them."

BACKGROUND CENTREPOINT

- Centrepoint was established in 1969 as a charity to help young people who were either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless

- Since then it has helped more than 70,000 young people and provides a range of accommodation services, including emergency night shelters and short stay hostels

- In March 2006 it took over Stopover Ltd, a charity that provided services to single, homeless people in South East London. It now reaches 1,800 young people a year

- At any one time Centrepoint can accommodate 670 young people and works with about 825 daily

- Prince William is the charity's patron.

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