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Prince William launches "Homewards" initiative in a bid to "finally end homelessness" in the U.K.

Prince William pledge to end U.K. homelessness
Prince William launches project to eliminate homelessness across the U.K. in five years 04:10

London — Britain's Prince William has announced a new project aimed at eradicating homelessness in the U.K. through partnerships with local communities and businesses. It's a cause close to the Prince of Wales' heart, and he's said his inspiration to tackle the issue comes from his mother, the late Princess Diana.

It's the first major project that William has launched since his father King Charles III ascended the throne, and something he calls a "lifelong mission."

"After so many years in the making, today's the day we are launching the Homewards initiative," William announced in South London on Monday, calling it "a transformative five-year program that demonstrates that it is possible to end homelessness."

His program, launched under the auspices of the Royal Foundation, draws inspiration from a similar project in Finland, where permanent housing has been provided to those who need it before other issues they may be facing, such as substance abuse and joblessness, are addressed.

Prince William has campaigned for many years to help those struggling with homelessness.

"I first visited a homeless shelter with my mother when I was 11," he recalled on Monday. "The visits we made together made a deep and lasting impression."

FILE PHOTO Princess Diana at Homeless Charity
Princess Diana meets a young homeless person at a Centrepoint homeless hostel during her visit to the center, March 10, 1997 in London, England. Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty

Princess Diana thought it was important to show her sons, the young Princes William and Harry, what life was like for people at the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum to themselves.

When he was a little older, William slept out on the street to help raise awareness of the issue.

Collaborating with people who understand homelessness

The London borough of Lambeth is one of six locations chosen for his new Homewards project, and Lambeth Council Chief Executive Bayo Dosunmu knows the challenges first-hand — and the solutions.

"Recently, we had a mother turn up with two children and they were homeless," he recalled. "She didn't have sufficient funds to put those children in some kind of afterschool club or activity to allow her to work… she couldn't pay the rent, and that drove them into homelessness."

Part of the concept of the Homewards project is to identify situations like that family's before they are made homeless. The thinking is that early intervention is crucial, and possibly more now than it has been in many years as Britain grapples with spiking inflation and runaway energy prices.

Experts and advocates up and down the country have warned that homelessness is expected to soar this year.

"What the prince is doing here is focusing things at a really local level by providing a pot of flexible funding and coalescing organizations that are already working at a grassroots level," Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, one of the project's advocates, told CBS News.

Prince William Meets Homewards Advocates In Windsor
An image released by Kensington Palace shows Prince William, center, meeting with (from left) Tyrone Mings, Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, Gail Porter and David Duke ahead of the launch of the Homewards initiative - a five-year program to demonstrate that it's possible to end homelessness in the U.K., June 22, 2023 in Windsor, England. Andrew Parsons/Kensington Palace via Getty

In a statement issued jointly by the 16 private sector Homewards partners, most of them charity organizations based around the U.K., the groups' CEOs called it "a sad reality" that more than 300,000 people were estimated to be dealing with homelessness in the U.K., "nearly half of whom are children."

"At times the issue of homelessness can feel entrenched, inevitable, and insurmountable but we know it doesn't need to be that way," the groups said in the statement. "As homelessness organizations, we know that to prevent homelessness, we need more and better collaboration and input from across the whole of society… For the level of change required, we need support from everyone, from every sector, throughout the U.K. (and beyond), and on a greater scale than ever before. This is where Prince William's involvement will be crucial."

A very personal mission for a real British hero

Cohen-Hatton is now Britain's most senior female firefighter and a celebrated author, but at the age of just 15, she found herself homeless.

"My father died when I was young. I grew up in poverty and my mom suffered really badly with her mental health," she said.  "When I think back to some of the experiences that I had, especially the dehumanization that I experienced, it was phenomenal. I was punched, I was kicked. I was spat on as a 15, 16-year-old girl."

Cohen-Hatton said she decided to become a firefighter "to help people in a way no one had been able to help me… and since joining the fire service, I was able to continue with my education. I've got a degree, a master's degree, a seven honorary PHDs."

She said that shaking the stigma of homelessness was the hardest part at first, and stressed that nobody chooses to be homeless.

With multiple, entirely un-modest homes in his own family, Prince William readily admits he's "one of the most unlikely advocates for this cause."

But it's a challenge he's nonetheless determined to see through, and on Monday he vowed that, "through Homewards, we will demonstrate that we can finally end homelessness."

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