Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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A community concern

October 09 2013
The Simon Community‘s soup kitchen was a vital part of its service in the early days The Simon Community‘s soup kitchen was a vital part of its service in the early days
The Simon Community is now 50!
In the kitchen of the Simon Community’s Hilldrop Day Centre in Kentish Town, two full-time volunteers are busy making ham and cheese sandwiches for the night’s soup run. Over in one of the two Community houses in Gospel Oak, the residents are preparing a fresh soup for tonight.

Everyone has their part to play, whether it’s making food or decisions, and that’s the way it’s been since the Simon Community came into being in 1963 – a half century ago this year.

“Unlike in other charities, where the policies and rules come down from above, whatever we do is agreed by the whole community,” explains John, one of the volunteers.

The Simon Community, which starts its 50th anniversary celebrations this month, was founded in London by former RAF serviceman and probation officer Anton Wallich- Clifford, who realised that many people he came into contact with at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court were stuck in a vicious circle of homelessness, reoffending and prison.

His experimental and sometimes controversial model, in which residents and full-time volunteers live together, is still at the core of what the community does. “It is challenging,” admits John. “It exposes you to your own needs and fragilities. But it’s also quite reassuring to hear about other people’s needs – and although anarchy is a difficult thing to manage we do have a basic tenancy agreement”.

It’s all a long way from the huge, business-like structures of many homeless charities today. “I think what makes us different is that we have never accepted government funding, which we believe would compromise our independence,” says director Bob Baker. “We are not outcome orientated. You don’t have to fill in a form before we help you, we don’t ‘process’ people. We are open access and all of our services are free to all.”

That open-door policy was evident when The Pavement visited the Hilldrop centre. People trickled in, signed the visitors’ book and then scattered – some for food, others to make use of the computers, washing machines, showers and clothing store. “What’s good about here is you can get everything done in one place,” says Paul, a former Simon resident, who fittingly found out about the charity when reading The Pavement.

Even though he’s currently based in the West End, Paul still makes the long walk to Kentish Town to visit the centre once a week. “You get to know the staff and I’ve got some friends here now.”

The lack of formal registration also means the Simon Community tends to see the most extreme cases, according to Baker: “They might have been banned from other services or have issues with them. For whatever the reason, those who don’t fit in come to us.”

Would-be residents do have some hoops to jump through, though, namely winning over the existing occupants. “We invite them for dinner on a Sunday,” explains longtime Simon volunteer and trustee Alan Cole, "to have a talk with the residents and see if they get on."

Community, friendship and muddling through are at the heart of the anniversary celebrations. A website, simoncommunityhistory.org.uk, has been launched, featuring photos and memories from former residents and volunteers, such as Housing Justice volunteer Carol Graves, who remembers "an exhausting sort of life, always short on sleep and proper meals. Another (tellingly lengthy) piece is entitled ‘Things that went wrong on the soup run’.

A Simon Community Reunion Party is also being held this month, there’s a film, fundraising concerts and a conference.

The Community is also using the anniversary to think to the future, and has big plans. One is to return to Simon’s original ‘three-tier’ housing structure, in which residents move up as they become increasingly independent.

Another project in the pipeline is a women-only drop-in at Hilldrop due to start soon. Then there are social activities on the horizon, such as a play with Cardboard Citizens, a jazz concert at St Giles Church and the Middleton Square Homeless Christmas Dinner at St Mark’s Church.

Their main obstacle to further progress is money. The Simon Community operates on a tiny budget in comparison to many other charities. "Our annual turnover is about £350,000 a year – not much if you compare it with St Mungo’s £54million," says Baker.

Their current aim is to encourage individual sponsors, who unlike government or corporate funders don’t impose their own agenda. "When we think of spending any money we think of these individual little old ladies who’ve sent us ú5 out of their pension, so we don’t have flashy offices or expense accounts or luxuries," explains Baker. "We operate all the way through the organisation as cheaply as possible."

With just three paid members of staff (Baker, Service Coordinator Phil Hole and Administrator Rachel Cullen), the Simon Community unsurprisingly relies heavily on an army of volunteers. "We’re relentlessly amateur – we’re not a professional outfit," says Baker. "We offer what we can offer, which is kindness and a listening ear and those sorts of human contacts with people."

"People need some time to recover a bit, before they start tackling their problems – they make the choices. "We recently helped someone who first came to us six and a half years ago without any documents. He decided what help [he wanted] and we supported him and let him go at his own pace. This man has now just got citizenship, and decided he is ready to move on." And surely that’s something to celebrate.

• To donate or become a (free) member: simoncommunity.org.uk

The Community Reunion Party will take place on Saturday 12 October from 1pm-4.30pm at Toynbee Hall, 28 Commercial Street, London E1 6LS. RSVP to 020 7485 6639 or by email via admin@simoncommunity.org.uk

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