Cork Simon: Giving people their second chance at life

As Cork Simon celebrates its 50th year, Paul Sheehan tells Amy Nolan it is the stories of the people who have turned their lives around that motivate Simon’s staff and volunteers
Cork Simon: Giving people their second chance at life

Paul Sheehan at Cork Simon's city centre administration office. Picture: Larry Cummins. 

AFTER a milestone year for Cork Simon Community, marking 50 years in operation, the charity has said a primary focus for next year and the years ahead would be increasing its own housing stock in a bid to get more people out of homelessness.

The profound impact the charity has had in Cork since its inception in 1971 was underscored in the ‘50 Faces of Cork Simon’ campaign, featuring 50 stories across 50 weeks this year in video and written formats.

“The idea was to try and reflect all the different people, all the different skills, all the different participations that make Cork Simon what it is today,” Cork Simon campaigns and communications manager Paul Sheehan told The Echo.

The campaign includes the stories of those who have availed of the charity’s services, people who volunteer or work in different roles within the organisation, as well as people fundraising on behalf of Cork Simon.

“When you reflect on it — and I’ve been working here for quite a while now — it was an eye-opener in terms of the sheer scale of involvement in Cork Simon and to get a sense of how much Cork Simon is part and parcel of the city,” Mr Sheehan said.

“We have been here for a long time — 50 years is a long time — but just the sheer amount of people who get involved, who give of their time, who dig deep into their pockets, who have a real sense of ownership of Cork Simon, and who have a real sense of helping people to turn their lives around, it was a real motivator that so many people are pitching their tent to a cause that we all feel strongly about.”

Mr Sheehan said the stories that resonated most were those of the service users.

“The ones that really impacted the most were the people who matter most — the people using our services. Just to see what it meant to them to be able to turn their lives around, that’s the wind in our sails really.”

The renewed motivation comes after a challenging two-years for the charity during the pandemic.

“Because of Covid, we had to reduce capacity across all of our services in light of public health advice.

“So, for example, in our emergency shelter where we had double-occupancy rooms, we had to turn them into single-occupancy rooms and that was obviously to keep people as safe and protected as possible from Covid.

“Our approach there was that very early on, people using our services were identified as a more vulnerable group to contracting the virus.

“We reorientated all of our services with that in mind.”

The charity found new ways of doing things during the pandemic, which included phone calls and WhatsApp messages to people who have been rehoused when visits to homes were restricted.

While it has been an undoubtedly challenging period for the charity, Cork Simon has learned some valuable lessons during the pandemic.

“It [Covid] meant that we weren’t able to meet as many people as we normally would in 2020 and 2021 but, on the plus side, we were able to give the people that we were meeting more time and that made a difference.

“I think there was a big learning in there for us as well in that, when we were making contact with people by phone or by WhatsApp, that worked for people and maybe that’s something that we can incorporate into the future.”

Mr Sheehan said protections introduced by the Government to support tenants during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as the blanket ban on evictions, helped to stem the flow of people into homelessness, but the charity began to see figures rising again once that was lifted in April.

“It helped considerably. That being said, however, once those were lifted we saw a very slow but steady increase in the number of people presenting. In October we saw a significant increase,” he said.

The Simon Communities of Ireland have proposed a Homeless Prevention Bill, recently tabled in the Dáil by the opposition parties, aimed at providing a targeted intervention to prevent homelessness.

If enacted, the legislation would “stop people being pushed into homelessness if they are at risk of losing their tenancy and they can’t find alternative accommodation,” Mr Sheehan explained.

“If a household or an individual was reaching the end of a tenancy notice period and they couldn’t find alternative accommodation, and the relevant local authority deemed them to be at risk of homelessness, well then that tenancy notice period could be extended, which would give them more time to find alternative accommodation, but it would also give them more time to access the various supports that are available from the local authority or indeed from organisations like ourselves and we think that would have a huge impact on slowing down the flow of people into homelessness, which is one of the challenges we are facing,” he said.

Looking ahead to 2022, the charity is hoping to get fundraising events back on track and is focused on increasing its housing stock.

“This time last year we were all hoping that 2021 would be a bit better, but I think we’re all doubly hopeful that 2022 will be much better.

“The first thing we want to do is get our fundraising events back on track. We had to curtail all of our public events really.

“There’s something about coming together in common cause though and we’d like to get that back on track as quickly as possible,” Mr Sheehan said.

“We want to increase the number of people that we are able to house and increase the number of people we can house in housing they can afford and that they can maintain and, with that in mind, we’re hoping to increase our own housing stock, not just next year but over the next few years because we understand how broken the housing system is.

“We understand and appreciate now that we can’t really be depending on that housing system to get people out of homelessness as quickly as we need to, so we’re going to do our bit and create as many spaces as we can and that’s where our focus is really going to be.”

Independent Living

A KEY project that Cork Simon completed in 2021 was the renovation of the St Joachim and Anne’s building on Anglesea Street.

Work at the site commenced in 2019 to sensitively convert the listed building into eight independent living flats for people who were trapped in long-term homelessness.

However, construction work on the project was delayed as a result of the pandemic.

“Obviously, the renovation of it was delayed because of the Covid restrictions and there were construction restrictions for a period,” Cork Simon campaigns and communications manager Paul Sheehan told The Echo.

“Thankfully we were able to get construction back on track and it was completed earlier this year.

“The eight apartments there were fitted out and they are now all occupied by people who have left long-term homelessness and who were stuck in emergency accommodation or an emergency shelter for a very long time. All the tenants there are doing well.

St Joachim and St Anne’s on Anglesea Street, which contains eight independent living flats for people experiencing homelessness.
St Joachim and St Anne’s on Anglesea Street, which contains eight independent living flats for people experiencing homelessness.

“It’s a fantastic facility. It’s a great location. All the services which people may need to access are in easy reach.

“It’s quality accommodation that people can afford and it gives people a level of security that they can put all of their energies now into addressing the issues that pushed them into homelessness in the first place.

“We have a housing team that provides ongoing support visits for people in those flats and at the moment it’s going really well,” Mr Sheehan continued.

Funding for the project, the majority of which was secured through a capital acquisition scheme, was allocated in 2014, but was then only made available in July 2018.

Pictured when works were just completed is the inside of one of the eight independent living flats for people experiencing homelessness at St Joachim and St Anne’s on Anglesea Street.
Pictured when works were just completed is the inside of one of the eight independent living flats for people experiencing homelessness at St Joachim and St Anne’s on Anglesea Street.

Previous functions of the mid-19th century building include as an almshouse, an asylum, and a self-catering home for elderly women.

Looking ahead to 2022 and beyond, Mr Sheehan said a key focus for the charity would be increasing its own housing stock in a bid to get more people out of homelessness.

Earlier this year the charity submitted a planning application for a residential development at a site at Alfred Street/Railway Street, at the location of the former Saab car dealership.

The proposed development would comprise 78 residential housing units — 29 large studio apartments, 43 one-bed units, and six two-bed units.

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