Simon is named for Simon of Cyrene. a stranger conscripted to help Christ carry the cross. but it's now basically a "godless organization," as one volunteer complained. Founded in 1963. Simon defines itself in contrast to traditional organizations that attempt to help the estimated 5,000 to 8,000 people who sleep rough in London and the 20,000 living in hostels. Simon considers itself a community, aspiring to break down the division between helping and being helped. Its philosophy is strictly nonrehabilitative: "Simon does not aim to pressurize people from the streets to return to normal society .... Many of the people we work with are at rock bottom and will never rise far above it," reads a passage from their literature.
The idea is for the volunteers to "share the poverty of the residents ... living with and alongside the most needy and rejected ... sitting in the gutter and smoking a fag and listening."
In addition to the shelter, Simon runs two longer term houses and a farm. It's staffed entirely by volunteers who are for the most part in their early to mid-twenties and who live in the houses with the residents. "Coworkers," who have been involved with Simon longer than most of the volunteers, are usually older people who live in London and come in regularly to pull night duty and go on the tea runs.
The shelter, a three-story converted pub, is in an industrial area of warehouses, taxi depots, and squatted buildings. Every day, on the ground outside the shelter, are piles of empty cans of lager (Super Strong Tennents, 9%), cigarettes smoked to the filter, mattresses, cardboard, discarded blankets. Inside is bed space for about 18 people. Residents can stay for 5 days. They have to be out by 10 in the morning and can return any time after 6 p.m. Most usually spend their days in one of the 35 day centers around London. They can arrive in any condition they want, but no drugs or alcohol are allowed inside.
Search the rooms in the morning and you find stashed bottles of alcohol, makeshift weapons under pillows, syringes, bottles of amyl nitrate, caked up vomit on the floor, bedside buckets of feces. At night cans fall out of coat pockets, protrude from socks, rocks of crack are pulled from crotches, cubes of hash from tobacco tins. Guests sit outside the chained door getting drunk, slagging
off Simon ("And you call yourselves charitable people ... "). In every bathroom are bottles of Quellada lotion, "gamma benzene hexachloride in a pleasant perfumed base for the destruction and elimination of scabies, body lice and their eggs."
I was assigned to the street work team with 20-year-old Jan, my very jovial partner from Slovakia, who at Simon lost his virginity and tried hash for the first time. He had a keen nose for hypocrisy, thought some of Simons's slogan-like philosophies ("Never ask anyone why they are on the street") were a bit of a joke, and resented the self-congratulatory attitude of some of the workers. He also said things like, "A lot of people think sleeping rough is so bad and depressing. I think it's excellent. These guys are joking around and laughing. It's much better than having a house and two kids and a job." He was well meaning, though, and got along with people on the street and in the shelter.
I spent my days wandering around giving out tobacco, going to the day centers and skippering sites (places where people sleep out). At night, Jan and I would walk the streets, down alleys, under bridges, through train stations and parks, approaching people who were NFA (No Fixed Abode, occasionally corrupted to No Fucken Answer), asking, "Want a roll-up?" If they said yes and invited us into their space or their bash (makeshift shelter), we would sit with them, talk, bring them back to the shelter if they wanted to go. Sometimes they were inordinately grateful, thanking us profusely as they hung on me, staggered, and sprawled onto the floor of train cars. Sometimes they'd offer a simple, "Fuck off, hypocrite."
I met Lee early on in the shelter. He's 21 years old, been on the streets intermittently since he was 16, and says he's on the run from the police. I stayed up all night listening to his macho posturing (more Dennis the Menace than threatening), the stories of his prison days and crack habit (both exaggerated). He took great pleasure in schooling a Yank in British culture, in playing street urchin (been there, seen it, done it) to my innocent. He showed me how to make prison weapons, spending an hour trying to break apart a disposable razor for the blade. He taught me how to make a proper cup of tea and played Risk with a fervent British nationalism.
I followed Lee out one morning and let him give me a tour of London. He introduced me to the people he sleeps with in the doorway of the post office: Dave, who Lee calls his street father, a 67-year-old man who's been on the street for about eight years; and Charlie, a glue sniffer who's been using since 1979 and sits with his ever-present plastic bag and can of Evo-Stick, continually huffing, glue stuck to parts of his face.
During the spring and summer Dave travels around England picking fruit for farmers, sleeping in the woods and in monasteries. In the winter he comes down to London where there's a steady supply of handouts. He used to be an alcoholic, but he's been sober for 10 years, one of the few men living on the street who don't use. He carries himself with dignity, makes sure he's always neat in appearance, carries a bag on his back (his "coffin") that must weigh about 40 pounds and never "goes in" (to a shelter or hostel), as he and the others tell me with pride, even in a foot of snow.
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