Centrepoint: the beginning
This year, Centrepoint turns 50. We spoke to three women involved in the early days of Centrepoint, who were there when the gates to the night shelter were first opened on the 16th December 1969...
To celebrate our 50th anniversary, we've been speaking to the young people Centrepoint has helped over the years and the volunteers who made the charity what it is today. Through trust, encouragement and opportunity, we've seen residents shed their vulnerability to become NHS workers, investment bankers, teachers; family men and women; and, most importantly, confident, independent adults.
Here, we speak to three women who were there when Centrepoint first opened its doors on London's Dean Street, as they reminisce about life in the sixties, assisting Reverend Kenneth Leech, and why Centrepoint is still needed today.
Helen Burston, original Centrepoint volunteer
“I was a Centrepoint volunteer from day one: 16 December 1969. I had recently graduated from Birmingham University and was 22 years old. I was just a child myself! It was a pretty gruelling business – I worked through the night every Wednesday and then went to work in an adventure playground the next morning, which was my first full-time job. I would often fall asleep during the playgroup singing session in the afternoon as I’d had very little sleep!”
Ruth Cram, original Centrepoint volunteer
“My involvement with Centrepoint was an important part of my time as a live-in volunteer with The Simon Community. I first heard about Simon through an article in my Girl Guide magazine when I was 15. There were a lot of rough sleepers in Devon where I grew up, particularly in the warmer weather, so the idea of living in a radical new community which helped them appealed to me.
“I moved into The Simon Community in July 1969. At that time under [founder] Anton Wallich Clifford's direction, there were many volunteers, of all faiths and none. We assisted with basic housework, cooking, and serving food to residents, volunteers and rough sleepers.”
MT Wallich-Clifford, wife of Late Simon Community Founder, Anton Wallich-Clifford
“The Simon Community was set up in 1963 by my husband Anton. He’d been a probation officer in Bow Street and had worked with those addicted to drinking methylated spirits, which was a huge problem at the time. The ramifications of World War II on Britain were huge and the amount of damage to London was enormous. People thought things would get better from this point, but it wasn’t until the early sixties that we realized those problems had lingered.
“A lot of the homeless and meth drinking population were largely ex-service men, many of whom were suffering from PTSD. The welfare state wasn’t even 20 years old, and the few services available for these people just weren’t substantial enough. Those who were homeless were sent into dormitories in great batches and there were still spikes – huge DHSS (Department of Health and Social Security) resettlement units for homeless men. They were all based about 15 miles apart, on the basis that a person could traipse that far in one day; the concept of homelessness back then was an old guy tramping around the country with a bandanna and a stick.
“But all these services were punitive: they had the attitude of, 'We’re doing this for your own good and if you want help, then you have to do what we tell you to'. Anton had a very different view of life: he felt it was important to accept people as they were, and not expect that you’ll be able to change them. He set up The Simon Community as a therapeutic space where volunteers and homeless people lived together on an equal basis; when I lived there I had a pound a week pocket money, same as everybody else. This is still very much how the house in London is run today.”
“Reverend Kenneth Leech, the curate at the St Anne's parish of Covent Garden, knew Anton well and invited volunteers to attend regular seminars on a variety of social topics. After the seminars, many attendees would go to De Hems, a local pub. I was present when Ken Leech, Anton and MT discussed the influx of young people into central London. The consensus was that something must be done – it prompted Ken to offer his savings and the basement at St Anne’s. I remember an evening in Ken’s flat with several others, addressing envelopes with letters of appeal to post to potential donors.”
“When we saw the basement in St Anne’s, Anton and I thought it would make a really good place for a project like that. We talked to Ken – he was well aware of what was going on around Soho and felt strongly that his job was not just to be a parish priest to the church-goers, but to be there for those in the area, too. Ken had a strong sense of social justice and was concerned for those on the outskirts of society.
“Back then, Anton travelled around the country talking about his ideas and raising money. Within a few years there were projects all over the country – Centrepoint was one of these projects, and we also set up the homeless charity Cyrenians. One of our volunteers started St Mungo’s and was the first director there. The Simon Community birthed this idea that you don’t talk down to people, that you work with people at a level they can manage and that you always involve people in what’s going on - an ethos that Centrepoint also embodies.
“I remember we were all terribly excited about St Anne’s. On 14 December '69, a whole group of us from The Simon Community went to help get the new space ready for whatever homeless young people found their way to us. It opened two days later. I ended my period as a volunteer for Simon not long afterwards and went home to South Wales, but I came back to London after Christmas. It was then that I became a regular volunteer at Centrepoint.”
“Although I saw some terrible sights, I loved every minute of my nights there. I was young, I wanted to work with people and Simon and Centrepoint offered me the kind of unique experience I was seeking – one which university life was unable to provide.
"But I’d had such a sheltered, middle-class upbringing, that it was also a real eye-opener for me. As volunteers, we had lived in very austere surroundings before, but Centrepoint was different – the clients there were my age. Some of them had come to London in search of new experiences and it had gone wrong, but most had come to escape abuse, deprivation, unemployment, and failed relationships. Some, I now realise, were suffering from post-traumatic stress. They mostly had mental health issues, were often addicts – either drugs or alcohol or both – were depressed and many were suicidal; desperate for help but not knowing or trusting in the ways they could get it."
After a year or so, other volunteers joined who were not part of The Simon Community. Harry and Sylvia Knight were two I remember vividly – they were good friends of Ken’s. They both worked full time, and out of the goodness of their hearts would work at the night shelter on a Friday or Saturday night. Thanks to a good relationship with the police at Euston Station, they liaised with officers, persuading them to hold on to young vulnerable people getting off the train at Euston from places like Dundee, and we would pick them up to take them to the night shelter.
“Covent Garden was just a fruit and veg market back then and lorries would arrive there from all over the country, picking up runaways and hitchhikers along the way. These kids would arrive in the middle of London and just hang around. At that point, there was a 24-hour café called The Friar Tuck just off Trafalgar Square, as well as a 24-hour Boots and a Post Office. These were the places where addicts and those who preyed on the addicts would congregate – but it was also where the young people would go, which left them very vulnerable.
“We were all concerned that young people were just walking straight into these potentially life-damaging situations. There was a lot of grooming going on. We wanted to catch the children as soon as they arrived to stop them from falling into that sort of situation.”
"That time at Centrepoint was by far the most challenging work I’ve done. The facilities were very basic – Rheta Leech, Ken's wife at the time, arranged for the donation of some shabby mattresses which were laid out without any bedding. There was a kettle and the means to heat soup. Bread was often donated by the convent in Poplar now portrayed in Call the Midwife.
"Access was through a padlocked gate. When the bell rang at the gate, two volunteers would go to assess if the person should be admitted, based on their age and situation. I always found this aspect of the job very difficult – every night I wondered who would be waiting at that gate. If admitted, they could stay for three nights, during which time hopefully accommodation and help could be arranged. The younger and especially vulnerable would be taken back to The Simon Community for safety."
"They would shuffle in when the doors opened at 7pm and receive a warm welcome from us. They would talk, we would listen. Mostly they didn’t settle down to sleep until much later.
"Looking back over the diaries I kept from that period, I realised what an important part of my life Centrepoint was and how significant it was in forming my future as a psychotherapist.
"Only now do I understand their motives for running away from home, and their horror at the thought of being taken back or having any contact with parents – something we encouraged them to do. Our role was to try and help them take their next step. They would often return to Centrepoint at a later date, sometimes in a better state, sometimes a lot worse. London in 1970 had proved to not be paved with gold, after all."
“In April 1970, after Centrepoint had been running for five months, a total of 600 people had come through our doors. Nearly 400 of those were new arrivals around 17 to 24 years of age. Some had just arrived at Euston, others had come from other organisations, such as the YMCA and The Irish Centre. We helped them in any way we could – we got 111 of these in homes. There were only 22 we couldn’t do anything for.”
"I returned to Torquay in April 1970 and got a job as a houseparent. But when I was almost 18, I went back to London and volunteered for Centrepoint again.
"That’s where I met Colin.
"He was a volunteer with The Rink Project, doing detached youth work in London's West End. We were attending the same seminar and hit it off straight away. That was that – we got married in the Chapel of the Upper Room on 13th December 1970. Ken married us and paid for our wedding lunch at De Heims. We now have three children and two grandchildren, and are soon to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary.
"Ken moved back to his hometown of Manchester when he retired, and I just happened to bump into him on the street there. We kept in close contact after that, and when it was my and Colin’s 40th anniversary we were able to invite him. It was wonderful and we were able to reminisce about the old days.
"Sadly, Ken died a few years later. He was such a major inspiration to me. His brand of Christian socialism informed my life and is still something that’s very much in my heart. "