A freezing night sleeping rough on London's streets is a quick way to forge a friendship. There's not much scope for formality when you're trying to get some kip behind a wheelie bin, even if one of you is a future king. Seyi Obakin, chief executive of Centrepoint, the charity which supports homeless young people, has considered Prince William a friend ever since they bedded down side by side on sheets of cardboard under Blackfriars Bridge, 12 years ago.
The Prince and the Nigerian-born administrator kept each other's spirits up even as the temperature fell to minus four: "He poked fun at me endlessly because I don't do well in the cold. He'd camped out with the army. I said, 'It's all right for you, I'm older and I'm not a soldier!' We both laughed. That's the Prince William I know," he says.
It was painful to watch that friend – whom he refers to as "PW" – last week, having to state publicly that "We are very much not a racist family" in the wake of allegations by his brother, Prince Harry, and his wife Meghan that their son Archie was denied security and not made a prince because of "concerns" about the colour of his skin.
The couple refused to say which members of the royal family voiced such concerns; Oprah confirmed that it was not the Queen, nor Prince Philip – which keeps Prince William among others in the frame. But that does not chime with Obakin's experience at all. "I have never seen a hint of racism. Never. I have worked with him in close proximity for years. He has met my family. He's never treated us with anything other than decency, dignity and respect," he says.
Centrepoint, which has supported more than 14,000 young people in its homes and hostels across the UK during the pandemic, has just got planning permission to build 33 one-bedroomed modular homes in south London to accommodate young people moving on from hostels, part of an ambitious, multi-million pound "Independent Living Programme" enthusiastically supported by Prince William, the charity's patron.
At the moment, young people who undergo Centrepoint's education and training programme and find a steady job often find themselves homeless once more as they earn the minimum wage, so can't afford a private rent and don't qualify for social housing. The new housing is intended to create a "bridge" to self-sufficiency. Rents will be set not at market rate but as a proportion of income, so a young person on minimum wage will pay one-third of their earnings – £350 a month – for what would normally be an unreachable (if tiny) flat in London.
"I'm pleased that with PW's help, his interest in homelessness, and with independent living in particular, we've been able to assemble a group of people who think this bridge is really important," says Obakin. The group, which has spearheaded the development of the programme, includes financier Jamie Reuben and Javad Marandi, owner of Soho Farmhouse and designer fashion brands Anya Hindmarch and Emilia Wickstead.
Obakin has been the charity's chief executive for more than a decade – and before that was finance director – but Prince William's connection to the charity goes back even further. As children, he and Prince Harry were taken to visit Centrepoint's hostels by their mother, Princess Diana, who '"didn't want the boys to grow up thinking the whole world was 4x4 Range Rovers, shooting and nannies".
Prince William took over from his mother as the charity's patron 16 years ago, aged 23. It was the first patronage he took on.
"He said 'if I'm going to do it I need to understand how this stuff works, can I volunteer?' He came along a number of times and worked as part of a multi-ethnic team serving a multi-ethnic group of young people, talking to them about their housing benefit problems and ringing up the benefits office.
"One of the young people came in and said 'You look like somebody famous,' and he replied, 'Yeah, people have said that to me before' and just carried on. The kid was none the wiser."
As Centrepoint marked its 40th birthday in 2009 the Prince wanted to do more to highlight the issue of homelessness. Obakin asked him. "What about taking that one notch up and sleeping out yourself?"
"Never in a million years did I think he would say yes," he laughs. "then I thought 'My god, what have I done? I've just invited the future king of England to sleep rough on the street."
Centrepoint holds an annual sleep out for supporters, which is safe, controlled and fenced-off: that was not the Prince's idea of sleeping rough. "He said 'If I'm going to this I don't want something genteel, something protected. I want an authentic experience. We agreed not to tell anyone. I did not even tell my wife," says Obakin.
They picked a December night and crawled into their sleeping bags accompanied only by Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, the Prince's then private secretary: "People said to me afterwards there must have been security but there wasn't. There was just us.
"We did exactly what a young person who has nowhere to live would do. If you are sleeping rough people spit at you, people kick you. So we walked around looking for a spot and found this little cul-de-sac and got some wheelie bins to mark out our space."
Next morning they got up around 5.30am and walked to a Centrepoint hostel in London's Soho where the Prince made breakfast for the residents (before joining the Queen for lunch at Buckingham Palace): "He said he'd realised the noise of the city goes on all night You can't really get any sleep because you're alive to it every time someone walks past. He said it had been a challenge for him, with some military experience, to sleep out for one night and that if you were a young person with nowhere to go, doing it night after night after night, with no structure and purpose for the rest of your day, that would create havoc on your mental well-being."
Obakin believes that understanding of how difficult experiences can impact mental health has informed the Prince's work with Heads Together and made him a passionate supporter of giving people a sense of purpose as well as help: a hand up as well as a handout. Just over a year ago he opened an "apprenticeship house" for Centrepoint, where a number of formerly homeless young people working as apprentices in catering, warehousing and logistics are living together and supporting one another as they build careers with partner companies, including Amazon and Selfridges.
"Independent living is not just about houses, it's about jobs, and guess what, everyone benefits," says Obakin. "We have a young person who's not depending on the taxpayer for social security but working and paying taxes. That's a collective benefit. For the young person it's fantastic, it means 'I am somebody. I am of value. I am not just taking, I'm giving'. So many young people want to do that, all they need is the opportunity."
His royal patron's current troubles will soon pass, he believes: "All kinds of things happen in life for everybody. It's never a straight journey."
What he is sure won't waver is Prince William's commitment to ending homelessness. Without any publicity, he has insisted on making Zoom calls to a number of young people stuck in hostels in lockdown. Nobody put that on his schedule or forced him to do it, says Obakin. It's a sign that he cares.