Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

current issue

February – March 2024 : The little things READ ONLINE

RECENT TWEETS

Simon's 60th

December 01 2023

To commemorate the 60th birthday of the Simon Community and the 100th birthday of its founder, staff from the charity reflect on its creation and the legacy of the man who started it


In the 1960s Anton Wallich-Clifford, an ex-probation officer, believed there was a need for charities to meet homeless people on their level and earn their trust: a revolutionary approach at the time but one now widely employed.

A raft of homelessness charities were inspired by Wallich-Clifford’s work co-founding the Simon Community, a network of homelessness centres which mushroomed across the UK and Ireland in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

And yet today, few people know of Wallich-Clifford, who was born a hundred years ago and died in 1978 aged 55. Bereft even of his own Wikipedia entry, his influence remains largely unacknowledged.

“There is no doubt that Anton has gone unrecognised as one of the great agents of change in UK society,” said Chris Hunton, chair of the Simon Community. “The work that he did changed the perception of homeless people and shone a light on the causes of homelessness.”

His supporters, who include his ex-wife, Marie-Therese Gibson-Watt, want Wallich-Clifford commemorated with a blue plaque at the site of the Simon Community’s original London house in Chalk Farm, where homeless residents still perform street outreach in line with the charity’s original communal ethos.

“We want it to recognise the profound change that Anton made in society,” Gibson-Watt explained.

“Before Anton, most of the organisations that existed to tackle homelessness were a legacy of the philanthropic Victorian era. Every big city had hostels for hundreds and hundreds of people, mainly men. Plus, there were still remnants of the workhouse system, although they were called government reception centres by then.

"Almost everything was completely top-down. Even in the Salvation Army hostels, you had to pray, and you had to pay for your knife and fork. You went up to bed in numbers.”

Wallich-Clifford was critical of this approach and believed it failed those scarred by mental health issues, including the war veterans he encountered suffering from PTSD.

“People believe that you can stop homelessness,” Gibson-Watt said. “Anton appreciated that there are things that can happen in people's lives that can make it difficult for them to function, like complex trauma.”

This is at odds with those who believe a complete end to homelessness is possible, a view recently promoted by the Prince of Wales.

“Any prominent person who's willing to bring social problems to the attention of the public, you have to welcome that,” Gibson-Watt said. “But there will always be people who don't understand other people, they get jobs, fall out of jobs, they don't understand themselves, they misunderstand other people and that becomes chronic for them. And they end up just falling out of society because they can't handle it.”

Arriving back from their honeymoon in 1967, the couple opened a house for addicts in east London, a radical departure from how drug users had previously been treated, but a model that was later widely emulated.

“There were people being prescribed British pharmaceutical grade heroin, cocaine and liquid methadone,” Gibson-Watt said. “It was a sort of upside-down life there because they mainly slept during the day and were active at night. This approach was very influential and cutting edge at the time.”

Wallich-Clifford’s influence was pervasive. One supporter inspired by his work with meth addicts left to form St Mungo’s. An alliance with a Soho church to tackle homelessness in central London was the genesis of the charity Centrepoint. A story the writer Jeremy Sandford produced for Social Action, a newsletter founded by Wallich-Clifford, went on to become Cathy Come Home, the Ken Loach-directed BBC drama whose shocking depiction of a family’s descent into homelessness provoked a national furore, triggered changes to the law, and led to the creation of the charity, Crisis.

“Anton was a visionary who drove the visibility of homeless people and awareness of the causes of homelessness,” Hunton said. “He emphasised that society shouldn’t look away and the Simon Community and the other charities he helped start are part of his legacy.”


INFO

  • Today, the Simon Community has a street outreach service in London’s West End on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 8.30pm – 10.30pm where food, hot and cold drinks, snacks, toiletries, clothes and sleeping bags are given out.
  • Newcomers can find the outreach team at the Edith Cavell statue next to the St Martin-in-the-Fields church between 9pm – 9.30pm

BACK ISSUES