Seven years ago, Joel Hodgson was curled up on the steps of Westminster Police Station; anxious, lost and homeless. Today, he’s suited and booted and heading to work at one of London’s biggest law firms.
Joel’s extraordinary journey from the streets to Fleet Street could well be mistaken for the plot of a Hollywood movie.
Starting in an orphanage in the tiny coastal Central American nation of Belize, Joel’s path in life has seen him sleep rough in London’s Hyde Park, carry the Olympic flame and act as an ambassador for his homeland at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.
In reality, Joel’s success is anchored in hard graft and a little bit of luck. Looking back, he says the turning point was when he walked through the doors of The Big Issue in 2009.
Tomorrow, Joel will give back to the organisation that helped change his life by returning to The Big London Night Walk. The fundraising event from The Big Issue Foundation sees Big Issue readers and vendors undertake a 12-mile walk around the city during its darkest hours. A real eye-opener to the realities of being homeless in London, the event also allows current and former vendors, like Joel, to share their inspirational stories.
The 28-year-old came to the UK when he was four, after he and his two sisters were adopted by Scottish Royal Navy marine engineer George Hodgson and his wife Shona from an orphanage in Belize.
Joel ended up on the streets in 2009, shortly after moving from Wishaw (a small Scottish town 15 miles from Glasgow) to London with his girlfriend, Michelle. The couple initially lived in a housing estate in Croydon but were forced to move out just five months later when thieves broke into their flat and assaulted Michelle.
They were told by police that a lack of witnesses meant the incident couldn’t be taken further. “The police said it wasn’t safe for us there, so they advised us to move on. From that time on we had nowhere to go,” says Joel.
“What people need to understand is that it can happen to anyone.”
The pair approached their local council but since they had been residents for less than six months, they didn’t qualify for assistance and were advised to return to Scotland.
“Neither of us wanted that so that was the first night we slept outside. We were on the stairs of Westminster police station. It made sense to us; if we got into any trouble we were outside the station. It had cameras, it felt safe.”
The next day they visited the Cardinal Hume Day Centre, a support centre open to homeless people in the city, to look for a hostel. But they came up against a common issue faced by homeless couples.
While Michelle could qualify for a room, Joel wasn’t as lucky. He was male, over 21 and therefore deemed “less vulnerable”. Determined to stay together, the pair spent the next few weeks camping in and around Hyde Park.
“We chose that area because it was nice and quiet at night. One of us would keep a look out or we’d find somewhere with CCTV,” says Joel.
“The first couple of nights were really scary but you kind of get used to it. The longer you are outside, you meet people in the same situation. There is actually quite a big homeless community so when people start recognising you they start looking out for you. It’s like a big family.”
While his visit to the Cardinal Hume Centre failed to provide Joel with a safe place to stay, it did bring about a chance encounter with Big Issue vendor Nicholas.
“He said he’d only been in London three weeks but had been selling enough magazines a day to buy food,” says Joel. “I went along to the office with him and signed up that day, one day after we became homeless.”
Joel started selling The Big Issue on Horseferry Road, right outside London’s Department of Transport and close to the Home Office.
“The first day was quite nerve-wracking. I’d been out there for an hour and hadn’t sold anything but when the first person bought a magazine and started talking to me, I felt a lot more comfortable,” Joel recalls.
“There was a coordinator outside Victoria Station who would keep an eye on me. It felt like someone was on my side for the first time in a while.”
Joel was soon earning enough money to pitch up at a campsite in Chingford, where the couple stayed for three months before saving enough for a deposit and first week’s rent on a flat.
After eight months at the street paper, Joel was asked to become the first participant in a corporate placement scheme piloted by The Big Issue Foundation. Every Thursday, he went from his pitch in Westminster to selling inside the Fleet Street HQ of top London law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.
“On my first day I stood in the canteen for three hours and sold close to what I would normally sell in a whole week!” Joel recalls.
“People were very welcoming. That was a shock because you’d think, as a homeless person going into a big corporate environment, people would look down their nose at you but I never once got that feeling.”
Joel’s charming personality and determined work ethic soon led to the offer of temporary admin work with Freshfield’s HR team. He made a good impression. Six months later, he was offered a full-time position in the firm’s billing department.
Looking back at his four-and-a-half years at Freshfields, Joel says, “Things have changed massively for me since then. I feel like I’ve got myself back on my feet. I pay my own rent, I feel secure.”
But his job has opened even more doors. The firm was a legal partner for the 2012 London Olympics and Joel was chosen by his colleagues to represent them as a torch bearer. This brought Joel, who has also been a keen runner from an early age, in contact with the Belize Olympics team.
He was asked to try out for the team heading to Glasgow two years later for the Commonwealth Games. While a pulled muscle thwarted his shot at competing, Joel became the team’s ambassador and joined the squad at the event.
He fondly recalls staying in the Athletes’ Village and attending the events and opening and closing ceremonies at Celtic Park: “The atmosphere was electric. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and something I’ll never forget. As we walked around the stadium, the place was buzzing.”
Years later, Joel remains full of gratitude towards the organisations that helped him build a better future.
“The Big Issue and The Big Issue Foundation turned my life around massively,” adds Joel.
“The good thing about The Big Issue is that it gives vendors tools to help themselves. That get-up-and-go attitude will encourage people to help you. It lets you say, “Look I’m in a bad position but I’m trying to get myself out of it.”
Stephen Robertson, CEO of The Big Issue Foundation, adds that Joel’s story continues to be an inspiration to current vendors.
“Joel was the first vendor to work in a London law firm, blazing the trail for the vendors who have followed,” he says.
“Even though he stopped selling The Big Issue some years ago, Joel is always happy to take part in events and provide guidance to other vendors. His journey is incredible and his support for those who are still on theirs’ is amazing.”
— The Big Issue (@BigIssue) July 17, 2014
More than anyone, Joel knows how easy it is to become homeless. He hopes his story, and events like The Big London Night Walk, will help reinforce that idea and inspire empathy.
“Even though it’s just one night it really opens people’s eyes to what homelessness is really like,” he says of Friday’s event.
“What people need to understand is that it can happen to anyone. The reality is that everyone is literally just a few pay checks or few steps away from being homeless. If people were a bit more understanding of that then it would be easier.”
A good first step, he suggests, is buying The Big Issue and getting to know the person who sold it to you. Their story could be a remarkable one.
Top photo courtesy of Adrian Lourie.