Woman reveals how she went from being homeless at 15 to becoming London Fire Brigade‘s Deputy Assistant Commissioner – and insists ANYONE can escape a life on the streets
A woman who went from being homeless to having a senior role in the fire service has reveals how she stopped hiding her past in the hope of encouraging others never to give up.
At 36, Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton is the Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Fire Brigade but as a teenager, she used to be homeless in Newport.
Sabrina, who‘s written a book about her experience, shared her story with Carol Voderman on today‘s Lorraine.
Reflecting on her life as a homeless person, Sabrina said: ‘I spent so many years hiding it and pretending it didn‘t happen, it was the most difficult thing,‘
‘But there are thousands of people who are in the same position today as I was back then, and I wanted to be able to tell these people “your circumstances do not define you, they don‘t determine where you end up, only you can.‘
Sabrina said she decided to leave her Welsh home after following difficult years after the death of her father, which left her mother devastated.
‘When someone goes to war with their demons, it‘s everyone around them who gets hit by shrapnel,‘ she said of her mother.
The firefighter said she ended up sleeping rough at 15 and had ‘some very difficult years‘ as a result. But the resourceful Sabrina said she focused on what she could control, and still attended school, even during the two years where she was homeless.
‘In a funny way, it was all that I could control in the chaos,‘ she said, ‘but what was really clear to me at that age was that there was very little help that was available to me,‘
‘So I very quickly realised the only person that was going to get me out of this situation was myself.‘
In parallel to her studies, Sabrina started to sell the Big Issue in order to survive, but said she earned very little money in Newport, where she lived at the time.
‘I used to get on a box at 6am in the morning up to a little town called Monmouth, [and would stay there] seven in the morning to seven at night until I‘d sold all my magazines.‘
She eventually earned enough to afford a small deposit for a rented flat, which allowed her to put her years of homelessness behind her.
While homeless, Sabrina lived in a derelict building and said she had to fend off strangers‘ attacks. She said she once woke up with someone urinating on her.
But she never gave up on herself.
‘I think everyone‘s got a spark inside them,‘ she said, ‘it just depends what you find to fuel the fire.‘
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‘I could see people all around me who would went straight downhill or wouldn‘t survive. I wanted to be able to do something to help other people when they‘re feeling vulnerable.
‘And that‘s what attracted me to the fire service, because I knew what it felt to be having that worst day of your life,‘ she explained.
Sabrina joined the fire service in Bicester when she was 18. And while she‘s faced some form of sexism, she said her experience was far more positive than negative.
‘I would be doing a disservice by pretending it [sexism] didn‘t happen, but I think what I would say is, I had far more positive experiences in the fire service than negative experiences,‘ she said.
She said she considered her coworkers as ‘big brothers,‘ and said they took her ‘on the strength of who they believed [she] could be.‘
Sabrina said she was thankful for her amazing career, and while she is one of the top members of the London Fire Brigade, she still is in the Welsh fire service.
Talking about she became Deputy Assistant Ccommissioner, she said it was an incident that ‘changed everything‘ that led her to the role.
She recalled she was once called to a scene of a truck accident were a fellow firefighter had been severely burned.
The victim could either be one of her coworkers and friends, or her then-boyfriend, who also worked as a firefighter in a neighbouring station and was one of the four firefighter present in the truck at the time of the accident.
‘I remember going to this incident feeling pretty sure someone I loved had been injured,‘ and I found that extremely difficult to deal with,‘ she said.
While her boyfriend, who she later married, ended up unscathed, she had to attend to the severe injuries of one of her friends instead.
‘So as much I had this sense of relief, I then felt incredibly guilty, for such a long time,‘ she admitted, ‘I felt like a horrible person for feeling relieved.‘
Sabrina then decided to turn her guilt into helping others
‘I started looking at what caused firefighter injury, and I was surprised to find that the majority of the time it‘s human error.
‘And that‘s when I started looking into what we could do to reduce human error,‘ she went on.
Sabrina now has a PHD, and is a honourary fellow at Cardiff University. On top of her many accomplishments, her life story was pickled up by a TV production company.
The Heat of the Moment by Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, published by Doubleday, priced £16.99.