20-year anniversaries come in all shapes and sizes. Some call for celebration, some for commemoration, and others for sheer respect. It’s the latter type that Simon on the Streets, the Leeds-based charity supporting rough sleepers and people in need across Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield is marking this year.
For two decades, Simon on the Streets has worked round-the-clock to engage with rough sleepers and offer support for their complex needs and the problems they face. With no government funding and a team of just eight (five outreach workers and three office staff) the charity takes on one of the most challenging and volatile issues of our generation every day, building on a growing support network to help people off the streets – or to overcome any of the myriad barriers in the way of getting there.
I meet Fahad Khan, Development Manager at Simon on the Streets, on a Friday morning in early spring. The chill is starting to leave the air – something that seems poignant as we begin to talk about the growing issue of homelessness, and the marked change in public attention during the winter months.
‘It’s such a topical issue,’ says Fahad. ‘The vast majority of the public is really concerned about the increase in rough sleeping. If we look at government figures, across the country the number of rough sleepers has increased by 165% since 2010. It’s unbelievable.’ And it only becomes more so when you acknowledge that those figures are likely to be an underestimation. ‘Charities like Shelter will say that you could easily double that figure; maybe triple it,’ Fahad tells me.
With the magnitude of the problem coming to life before my eyes, I wonder where a charity like Simon on the Streets begins – and how. ‘The support is day-to-day,’ says Fahad. ‘It can be tents, it can be meeting service users several times during the week, encouraging them to go to appointments, getting them registered on a housing list, getting them into drug rehab. All of the things that a person needs, we will do it for them.’
It’s a never-ending mission, and one impacted by a complex web of social, political and cultural problems – things like drugs, alcohol, mental health, immigration, austerity and social systems – all of which mean success comes person by person, step by step.
‘We don’t take government funding, so we can work freely and without time restrictions,’ says Fahad. ‘Taking so many rough sleepers off the streets in a certain period of time isn’t possible and doesn’t look at the real issues people are facing. We want to work with individuals without too much pressure on that person. They are the driving force behind that change, and we’re there to support them to do it – that’s the method we use.’
Over the years, Simon on the Streets has worked hard to become a trusted presence on the streets. Their branded hoodies are a familiar sight in Leeds, where around 60 rough sleepers are currently on the charity’s caseload. In Bradford – where work is more challenging owing to banning orders that move rough sleepers out of the City – that number is closer to 40, and in Huddersfield the touch is lighter owing to the services already working cohesively together for the needs of the City’s homeless.
Support-wise, Simon on the Streets focuses on emotional impact, often making sure people get the help they need by passing them over to another service. ‘We never turn anyone who asks us for help away, even if they’re not rough sleeping.’ Fahad tells me. ‘We’re always signposting people, and we put a high value on providing emotional support for people who currently don’t receive any of that.’
With homelessness more visible than ever, many of us pass more vulnerable people on the streets of our City each day without knowing how to help. Simon on the Streets’ emphasis on providing the right support on an individual basis means they don’t have a definitive answer for what the public should do, but Fahad’s advice is simple, intuitive and speaks to something we all could do with remembering.
‘One of the things we often lose, living in the bubble of a City – where it’s busy and everything is fast – is that we’re all humans and everyone has a story,’ he tells me. ‘Our service users say that even though they’re surrounded by people, they’re some of the loneliest people because no one talks to them. So talk to them; ask them what they want.’
And when it comes to supporting the work of Simon on the Streets itself, there’s no shortage of ways to get involved and places to make a difference in the coming months. On June 13th, the charity’s seventh annual Rough Diamond Ball will come to life in the Leeds Hilton Hotel, hoping to attract around 250 corporate guests and raise £10,000 in the process.
‘The Rough Diamond Ball is symbolic. It represents our service users, who we turn from rough diamonds to polished diamonds,’ says Fahad, telling me how this year’s event will celebrate the 20-year anniversary with a series of talks from people who’ve connected with the charity, as well as a raffle to win a diamond donated by a local jeweller.
Exactly a month later, on July 13th, Simon on the Streets will launch a brand new event-come-challenge. Walk with Simon – a 24-mile organised walk starting in Huddersfield, stopping in Bradford and finishing in Leeds – will see supporters go the distance to increase the charity’s visibility, and raise money in the process.
‘We’ve given people the option to do the full route or half a route,’ says Fahad, ‘I wanted to make it as accessible as possible, and I want it to be visible. We’re going to try and get businesses engaged by becoming water points, and we’ll finish in Leeds with a celebration on the night.’
As if the schedule wasn’t crammed enough for a team of eight taking on homelessness in three cities, Simon on the Streets’ largest event – Sleep with Simon – comes just two months later on September 26th. The charity’s annual sleep-out at the Royal Armouries attracted 150 last year, and the 2019 edition hopes to raise £30,000 for the organisation – money that will allow it to reinvest, expand its skills and continue to support people on the streets in the best way possible.
‘It’s not designed to replicate rough sleeping; it’s just to give people a slight understanding,’ Fahad says. ‘It’s the little nuances that you take for granted when you’re at home – like breathing in warm air. We’re able to go home at the end of it, but for rough sleepers, what they’ve got is getting up, sitting in the corner and begging. You go home really humbled.’
I’ve been talking to Fahad for well over an hour – a conversation that’s plumbed the depths of rough sleeping in the UK today, while at the same only just scraping the surface of a problem so complex, so misunderstood and often so out-of-sight, that getting to its root represents many lifetimes of work.
‘It’s never-ending, but it’s a really rewarding job,’ says Fahad, acknowledging that he could talk for hours more about the incredible people, thought-provoking stories and entangled – and sometimes enraging – issues at play.
For now, though, it’s time to say goodbye, and as I walk home, the presence of sleeping bags lined up in what feels like every other doorway seems heavier under the weight of a new understanding. If ever there was a time to get clued up and get involved to help Simon on the Streets with their very real, very human cause, that time is now.
All photographs provided by Simon on The Streets