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Simon Community Northern Ireland celebrates its 50th year

Finding out more about the life-changing work of NI’s longest-serving and largest homeless charity

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Simon Community staff pictured outside their new Central Office at Glandore's Arthur Place complex in Belfast City Centre

Simon Community staff pictured outside their new Central Office at Glandore's Arthur Place complex in Belfast City Centre

Simon Community staff pictured outside their new Central Office at Glandore's Arthur Place complex in Belfast City Centre

Simon Community Northern Ireland’s (SCNI) Chief Executive Jim Dennison (49) is committed to helping thousands of people across the province who are homeless.

It’s important that we deliver as many services as we can, that we accommodate as many people as we can, because there are literally hundreds and hundreds of people becoming homeless on a regular basis,” Jim says.

“Every day we support 636 adults, children and families, across a variety of different services, so the work of the SCNI is so important for the sheer demand that we have.”

The statistics related to the number of people in the region who are without a home, and the number of people who die homeless, are shocking.

“There are on average about 1,000 households, so that’s people and families, who present to the Housing Executive every month as homeless. It’s a huge number of individuals and it’s largely unseen, and I think if people knew the real size and scale of it, they would be a lot more alarmed by it.

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Simon Community 1976 'Save Simon' campaign secures first government funding

Simon Community 1976 'Save Simon' campaign secures first government funding

Simon Community 1976 'Save Simon' campaign secures first government funding

“Recently we have had the figures of homeless deaths here in Northern Ireland — 217 people in the last 12 months died here when they were homeless, so that’s basically one every other day, or three a week on average.

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“If one person on our roads died every other day, there would be a huge public outcry. There would be a media campaign, resources across departments thrown at it, but because these people die out of sight, they are out of mind. But we are an organisation who see it, can feel it, and are committed to it, and that’s what drives us.”

The Chief Executive says the SCNI run at full occupancy and for every bed they have, they could fill it five times over such is the demand.

“As an organisation, we’ve gone from serving hot soup to individuals who were made homeless in the early seventies through the Troubles, to becoming the largest provider of homelessness and support services here.

“That’s a really good thing, in that we are providing services for thousands of people each year, but the downside of that is more and more people are becoming homeless and need our services, so there is a real challenge there.”

As part of its 50th birthday celebrations, the charity launched a new Creating Homes programme to buy as well as manage 50 homes for people who are homeless, to give those who are in temporary accommodation a home of their own.

“We started on that journey, It’s not about a sticking plaster — we want to create 50 homes,” Jim explains.

“We have also completed a fairly significant piece of research with Ulster University on hidden homelessness, and there are a variety of recommendations in there about things like changing the legislation in Northern Ireland to make homelessness a statutory responsibility across all government departments.

“We are asking for proper resourcing and we are asking for investment in homeless prevention, so we catch people before they end up in homelessness.

“We are going to be taking that into our election asks as we run forward over the next few years, so that is very important to us as well.”

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Jim Dennison, Simon Community NI Chief Executive

Jim Dennison, Simon Community NI Chief Executive

Jim Dennison, Simon Community NI Chief Executive

For readers who want to help the organisation, Jim suggests volunteering, fundraising or making a financial contribution, or coming to work for the SCNI.

To those who are worried about, or at risk of homelessness, the homeless charity chief urges you to get in touch via the 24-hour helpline: 0800 171 2222 or visit: simoncommunity.org.

“Please contact us because you will get someone on the end of the phone who can help. The other issue is, please don’t treat homelessness as a stigma.

“Don’t judge people who you see as being homeless, there’s always a backstory behind this and more often than not, it’s a really traumatic one.

“As well as that, don’t have any stigma stopping you from coming forward and seeking help because they are thousands of people in similar positions. Talk to us and we will try and help if we can.

“People become homeless for a variety of different reasons.

“We will work with people when they become homeless regardless of what has happened in their lives. Some things may happen by accident, some things may happen because of certain behaviours, we park that, and we work with them if they don’t have a home.”

‘To have a roof over your head… words cannot explain’

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Simon Community Creating Homes client Donald

Simon Community Creating Homes client Donald

Simon Community Creating Homes client Donald

For 26-year-old Larne resident, Donald Dick “words cannot explain” how it feels to have a good night’s sleep and a roof over his head, after a period of homelessness.

Donald, who is originally from Zimbabwe, moved to Northern Ireland when he was 11 years old. In 2018 tensions rose within the family home as their apartment became too overcrowded.

“There was only three bedrooms and my stepfather has family as well,” Donald explains. “At the time I was 22. They say: you’re 22 you should be living on your own and all that, everything was just getting thrown on me.”

Things became so difficult at home that Donald ended up homeless for eight months, during which time he slept in various places including the floor of a friend’s recording studio, in cars, and in the Simon Community hostel.

Through the Creative Homes initiative, Donald was provided with his own apartment in Larne and he moved in on 15 April 2019.

“From there, life was changed,” Donald says. “It’s unbelievable. To be able have a good night’s sleep and have a roof over your head… words cannot explain. I feel like it was a dream come true, I never through this would ever happen to me, I thought maybe I was going to be in accommodation forever and be homeless forever.”

Donald is keen to raise awareness of the all-encompassing help provided by the Simon Community that is available to every person who needs it.

“It is not just the housing, the staff there will really help you with everything. They help you with benefits, getting set up with doctors and dentists, get connected with local churches, and local sports. They help us with food as well if you are stuck, there are food packages to make sure that you are fed.

“The work that they do is unbelievable because they can help guys like me, they can help everyone. I think it’s something that we all should be proud of — the work that they do, because nobody would help us if it wasn’t for the Simon Community. When I went there, I was really down and because I didn’t have anywhere to go, some of my friends they turn on me, but I was able to make new friends there.”

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Homelessness in Northern Ireland is highlighted by a National Sleep Out, which raises vital funds for Simon Community NI in 1996

Homelessness in Northern Ireland is highlighted by a National Sleep Out, which raises vital funds for Simon Community NI in 1996

Homelessness in Northern Ireland is highlighted by a National Sleep Out, which raises vital funds for Simon Community NI in 1996

Since moving into his own apartment, the relationship between Donald and his family has improved, and he is doing his bit to give back to the local community through is love of rapping.

“My friends recently opened a recording studio in Belfast, O’Block Studios, trying to help people from Northern Ireland make music. I have been doing music since I was young and I’m part of the production team, helping other people and shooting their videos for free. We are trying to create opportunities for ourselves, and help and support other people. You can see it on Instagram @oblockstudios.”

Donald is grateful from the bottom of his heart to the Simon Community for the non-judgemental help and support he received from them when he found life difficult.

“I’d like to say thank you again to the Simon Community for changing our lives and being able to transform us into the better version of ourselves.

“Whenever I was homeless, for those eight months, at some stage I didn’t know who I was, I lost who I was, but the Simon Community they were able to bring you back to life again. You kind of feel that everybody is just looking down at you because you live in a hostel, but the Simon Community never made us feel like that, and they were able to change our lives for the better. They never look down on you no matter who you are or what sort of background you come from — they treat everybody the same.”

‘The door is always open’

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Patrick McCann — Support Worker of the Year Runner Up at Simon Community Staff Awards 2019

Patrick McCann — Support Worker of the Year Runner Up at Simon Community Staff Awards 2019

Patrick McCann — Support Worker of the Year Runner Up at Simon Community Staff Awards 2019

Patrick McCann (55) is a support worker at Cliftonville Avenue temporary accommodation project. The North Belfast man joined the SCNI in 2011 and since then he has undertaken various training with a focus on health and wellbeing.

“I have done a course on personal training, and I got in touch with a gym in the town, and now we hire out the gym just for ourselves, for an hour on a Tuesday and a Thursday,” Patrick says.

“I did a nutrition course and a mindfulness course, and I linked all that in to physical exercise and nutrition in a programme I run called the 300 Programme.

“We organise walks around the waterworks and up Cave Hill and Divis mountain.

“It gives people something to get out of bed for in the mornings.

“We try to keep everybody occupied rather than sitting in a room all day.”

For Patrick the best aspects of the job are when he sees people get themselves back on track and “moving on with their lives”.

It can be any milestone from getting rehoused, finding employment, receiving the right addictions or mental health support.

“We provide a safety net for those who become homeless for whatever reason it might be.

“People become homeless for all sorts of reasons, people think its drink and drugs but that’s not the whole situation.

“Sometimes you look at the person and you don’t see the person behind the facade they put out, and they tell you their story and you think: ‘how do they cope?’

“It’s important for us that people feel comfortable to come to us.

“I would say even before you want to move in to the building, or take advantage of any of our services, just come in and a chat.

“The door is always open, come in and have a talk.”


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