Simon Community charity helping the homeless

Simon Community charity helping the homeless

27 November 2019

THERE’S a large house in Downpatrick which offers hope, protection, warmth and support to those without a roof over their heads.

It’s 14 Saul Street and this once grand Georgian building has been run as a hostel by the Simon Community, Northern Ireland’s leading homeless charity, since 1992.

It’s a barrack of a building, with closed doors leading to more closed doors, leading to a dreary stairwell and onwards to eight bedrooms with shared kitchen facilities and bathrooms.

It’s anything but salubrious, but it provides the very basic human need for shelter.

It’s currently home to five men and three woman as they try and navigate the next important steps in their lives.

Simon Community’s aim — ‘We work without prejudice to support people experiencing or at risk of homelessness’ — means that they are one of the organisations which deals with people when they are at the most lowest and most vulnerable periods in the lives.

Team leader John Millar wants to highlight the problem of being homeless in the wider Downpatrick district as Homeless Awareness Week starts on Friday.

John and his team know only too well the more common image of a man or a woman lying in sleeping bag outside a shop or building is only one facet of the complex nature of homelessness and just how hard it is for people to get into accommodation, private or social housing.

“Some clients have burnt a lot of bridges with family, either by being in prison or having addiction issues. Most of us think that if anything serious would happen to us, we could go to our parents or sisters or whoever. But the clients who come here literally have nowhere else to go,” explained John.

“They lack hope as they have no money to get a place and are often struggling with addiction or health issues. People can be referred to us from other Simon Community hostels, from social care services, as a probation address, or even from just turning up on our doorstep.

“The other day someone called up at 2am after a row with his partner and only stayed a few nights. There’s a number of reasons why someone is homeless. Normally there’s a family or relationship breakdown where they have to leave the home.

“A lot of our clients who stay for longer will be because they are not working and maybe have addiction issues so they don’t have the money to go and put down a deposit somewhere. In a town like Downpatrick, private rental can be so tough as there is so little available and the prices are quite dear. 

“When you receive between £50-£70 a week on benefits, raising a deposit and one month’s rent of £800-900 is hard enough and then to maintain that every month through housing benefit, it’s even tougher. Often the only option is to wait on social housing through the Housing Executive. That’s a much more secure route if they can get it but it can take a long time.”

While nearly three quarters of people living in Simon Community projects throughout Northern Ireland are male, the rest are women and over a third are under the age of 25.

The luckier ones will stay only for a matter of nights if a friend or family member is moved to accommodate them. But most will stay for an average of a year, with one man currently having staying at the local hostel for nearly three years.

One man in his mid-twenties has recently moved in, having spent the last six years moving between various hostels in Belfast.

John said: “People can get lost for years, going in this circle of homelessness, and we don’t get it right every time. But our goal is always to try to help.

“It can take several attempts before this happens but I would estimate that between 75-80% of our clients leave us to live elsewhere for what we class as a positive move on, whether it’s independently to their own address or back with family or with a partner.”

He’s somewhat of a poacher turned gamekeeper as he used to work for the Housing Executive in Belfast dealing with homeless clients.

He and his team’s knowledge of the often complex application and points system when it comes to social housing can prove essential.

There is a support worker present in the house 24/7 to provide a friendly, listening ear to the clients as and when it is needed.

While they are staying at the house, the clients receive care and support in a non-judgemental manner.

John said: “Once admitted to the shelter, every client is assessed for their individual needs and has a support plan. We sit down with the client and go through their needs, to find out what 

they want as it’s very client led. Some it could be training, volunteering, helping them determine their goals and the steps it takes to make it achievable 

“Our job is to build up their confidence and their skills as a lot of clients have never lived on their own and don’t know how to budget or cook.

“We organise activity days such as going out for a walk or going fishing. This is really to get them up and out and socialising again as clients can feel trapped in this building sometimes.”

Of course, it is not always easy or straightforward. Often for those clients who had alcohol and substance issues, the best option is the gradual scaling down of their use and to do it in a safer manner with the help of a Harm Reduction worker.

John adds: “The clients are all adults. We can’t stop them from lying in bed all day but we have a very experienced team here who build up trust with the men and women by encouraging them to either watch a movie with them in the common room or eat with us, just the ordinary things but perhaps things they have been missing in their lives for a long time.”

The hostel set-up is not for everyone and when John’s team approaches someone who is obviously homeless in the street, they don’t always succeed in getting them into the shelter.

John adds: “Sometimes we have to ask people to leave for a variety of reasons, say if they have been arrested by police or threatened or assaulted another client but my aim is for people to leave us for their own address with the skills to maintain that address.”

If you would like to get involved or would like to support the Simon Community in any way please visit