THE Simon Community was established in 1971 as a response to the homelessness crisis in Belfast, and with the crisis deepening throughout the North, the services they provide have become all the more vital.
According to recent statistics, homelessness rose by 32 per cent between 2012 and 2017, with 12,000 households accepted as homeless.
While the evidence of homelessness can be seen virtually everywhere – including on our streets – the degree to which it affects young people can often be overlooked. There are over 3,500 people aged 18 to 25 who are registered as homeless here, and over 35 per cent of The Simon Community’s service users are under-25.
One person who is to the fore in helping the charity provide services to those young people is Christina Howarth.
Christina has worked for the Simon Community for the last nine years, and is the current accommodation manager at the charity’s hostel for young people on the Antrim Road.
The hostel, which is known as the ‘242’, currently provides accommodation for 10 young people aged 16 to 21, but Christina says that the 242 provides much more than shelter for young people in need.
“Some of the young people who come to us might not have anyone else,” she explains.
“Some of them come here if there has been a breakdown in the family unit, or if they have been living in foster care or children’s homes. For some of them it is a bit of a shock because it’s independent living. Everybody has their own flat in 242, so they’re learning to manage their own money, learning simple things like topping up their gas and electric, or mopping the floors. For a 16-year-old having to do something like that is a huge challenge.
“Staff will help them with their food shopping, help them draw up a budget, and teach them to cook. A lot of the young people have lived in residential units or with a foster family who have done all that for them. So it’s really back to basics. It’s the things that we all take for granted that we have been taught that these young people haven’t been.”
In addition to teaching young people life skills, the Simon Community helps connect young people to local services in the area, and Christina insists that the 242 is perfectly situated in that regard.
“We’re very fortunate that we have so many services nearby,” she says.
“There’s Bryson Future Skills across the street, PIPS, Lighthouse and others are nearby too.
“All of the services are very willing to engage with us. For us it’s about responding when that young person is ready to. If they tell us that they are ready to talk about an issue, or if they say that they’re ready to enrol in training and education, then those services are right on our doorstep and we can take them there while they are in that mindset.”
The ultimate goal for the Simon Community at the 242 is to equip young people with the skills to become independent and – with the help of the Housing Executive – to see them find their own homes.
“We would work very closely with the Housing Executive to indentify what the needs of the young people are and to see how we can put the best support plans in place.
“The Housing Executive’s Home team come out every month and meet the young people and talk to them about their housing points, what their areas of choice are and what their housing options are.”
While young people typically only stay at the 242 for a short number of years, they often create lasting relationships with each other and with staff.
“We nearly live together,” Christina says.
“I’m there five days a week and it’s like a family home at times. You see them off to school, college or tech in the mornings, you see them home at night, you cook dinner with them and then we’ll all sit down together afterwards. I am very privileged that I get to work with these young people and make a difference.”
She continues: “The joy of the job is teaching them skills and seeing their accomplishments. If staff have taught them to cook something a few times, and then when they’re able to do it themselves they are so proud of themselves. It’s amazing when they have been able to achieve those things by themselves.
We’re very fortunate that we are able to teach them an equip them with those skills.
She adds: “The real perk of this job is that you can help all these young people to plan their lives, you have the opportunity to form these great relationships and you can make such a difference. Most of them are children when they come to us and you get to watch them progress and develop. Then when they become adults they get to have their own wee place. It’s really heart-warming.”
The Simon Community is the North’s largest homelessness charity and provides 369 beds across 22 accommodation projects. If you are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless you can call them on 0800 172 2222 or visit for more info.