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How a UEL student's experience of homelessness led to a meeting with a prince

Docklands Campus

Dale Taylor-Gentles is determined to make the most of his UEL opportunity after overcoming difficult challenges in life

By Simon Hart

In his 19-year life, Dale Taylor-Gentles has been a child carer, a ‘sofa surfer’ and one of the youngest residents of a hostel for homeless people.

He has also campaigned on homelessness issues, met and chatted with Prince William, corresponded with Theresa May and been the subject of a glowing article in the Evening Standard.

To describe his life as eventful is an understatement, but Dale is taking it all in his stride.

Now his focus on getting a good degree at the University of East London (UEL) and fulfilling his ambition to work in the field of counter-terrorism.

He is in the first year of his Sociology with Criminology programme and insists he could not be happier, having always dreamed about going to university to complete his education.

“The one thing I was looking forward to for a long time, even when times were hard, was university,” he says. “It was something to work towards that had nothing to do with my situation.

“University was something that wouldn’t change, even if my situation changed. Even if I ended up sofa surfing again, I could still work towards my education. It was something that would stabilise me. Even when things were really bad, the thought of university kept me going.

“Now that I’m at UEL, things are much more stable. I’m really enjoying the course, which is a lot more than I expected it to be.”

Dale’s life was recently the subject of an Evening Standard article about homelessness that shone a light on how spectacularly he has overcome the challenges thrown at him and turned them into positives. 

As a child, Dale says he endured a difficult relationship with his mother. “There was a coldness,” he says.

At the age of 11, he moved to Brixton, south London, to live with his grandmother, with whom he had always had a close bond.

But when he was 12, his grandmother suffered a stroke that was to lead to dementia and a steep decline in her health. 

“I became her informal carer,” says Dale. “For a number of years, no support was given to me. It was just me living with her. I had to do everything for her. I had to do the shopping, cooking, cleaning, even running a bath for her. I took on all the roles of an adult from the age of 12.

“Grandma only got a social carer when the dementia became very severe. She nearly burnt the house down on two occasions by putting an electric kettle on the stove.

“It was very hard to live with. She would go missing quite often and people would bring her home. It was a very stressful time – especially during my GCSEs.

Shortly after he finished his exams, his grandmother’s condition became so severe that she moved to a care home. 

Dale returned to live with his mother but the problems with their relationship soon resurfaced.

“Every evening a different argument would happen and it was never resolved,” says Dale. “It would build up and build up.”

On Christmas Day 2014, one argument became so heated that Dale was thrown out of the house.

“I went to stay with a friend of the family and from then I was just staying with friends and family members,” he says.

“I was sofa surfing for just over a month, and it was very difficult. I didn’t know what I was doing from one day to the next. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep the night. It was very bad.

“I was going to college but I wasn’t thinking about my school work, just my situation at home and what I was going to do tomorrow. It was just very, very hard.”

The stress was heightened by the difficulties Dale encountered in getting help from social services and convincing officials he was genuinely homeless. 

After weeks of wrangling, it was only when he turned up at Lambeth’s social services building and said he would sleep the night there if necessary that he was eventually referred to Centrepoint, the charity for young homeless people, who found him a place in a hostel in Camberwell.

“There were 80 people living in the hostel,” says Dale. “It’s the biggest hostel Centrepoint has in London. You have an individual room but you share a kitchen and bathroom with another person. 

“It’s for 16 to 25 year olds and it’s for any young person who is homeless, so it can be people who have come out of prison and are homeless, people who have been kicked out of home, care leavers, refugees – all sorts.”

Dale was 16 when he moved in and he was still living at the hostel when he began his UEL degree last September, though he has since been moved to a two-person Centrepoint flat in Lewisham.

During his time at the hostel, he continued with his A-level studies at college and also took an active role in the affairs of Centrepoint. 

He was elected as one of two hostel representatives for the Centrepoint Parliament – a national forum for Centrepoint services across the country and a voice for hostel residents. And at 17, he had the honour of being elected as the Parliament chair by his peers.

His new position meant attending Select Committee meetings at Westminster as well as meetings of the Centrepoint’s Board of Trustees.

And in June last year he travelled to a polo event to meet Prince William, the patron of Centrepoint, to discuss a mental health campaign that he and his Parliament colleagues had launched called ‘Find your happy’.

“Prince William does a lot of other things around mental health so he was very on board with it,” said Dale. “I spoke to him, shook his hand and even had pictures taken with him. We explained what the campaign was about and he was very supportive.”

Also supportive was the Prime Minister, Theresa May, after Dale and the CEO of Centrepoint wrote to her to tell her about the charity’s activities and to seek her backing in tackling homelessness among young people.

“She wrote a response, which I received in September,” said Dale. “She congratulated me and the CEO for what we had been doing and also explained what schemes and programmes she had coming up over the next few years to combat youth homelessness.”

Now that his term of office as chair of the Centrepoint Parliament has come to an end, Dale says he is focusing all his energies on his studies. 

“At the moment I just want to settle into uni and make sure I’m getting the grades I want,” he says. “I’ve been getting 2:1s and firsts, so I‘m really happy how things are going at the moment.

“University was always the plan for me. My grandma has always wanted me to go to university and I have always wanted to go. 

“Now, when I go and see her at her care home, the talk is always about her wanting to see me graduate.

“Our dream has always been for her to be at my graduation, and I really hope that she does make that far and sees me graduate.”