Housing

Campaigners want blue plaque for pioneer who changed how homelessness was tackled in UK

Anton Wallich-Clifford founded homelessness charity Simon Community 60 years ago. Now campaigners want a blue plaque to acknowledge how he changed the face of homelessness for good

Anton Wallich-Clifford founded the homelessness charity Simon Community

Anton Wallich-Clifford, founder of the Simon Community charity to assist homeless people, UK, 9th January 1964. Image: Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

His work with people on the streets in Sixties Britain dragged the country’s approach to tackling homelessness out of the Victorian era.

Anton Wallich-Clifford was an ex-probation officer whose work with the down-and-outs who regularly appeared before Bow Street Magistrates Court convinced him that a top-down, paternalist approach to tackling homelessness was doomed to fail.

Instead, he believed there was a need for charities to meet homeless people on their level and earn their trust, a revolutionary approach at the time but one now widely employed.

A raft of homelessness charities and Cathy Come Home, the shocking television drama which provoked a public outcry over the treatment of homeless people, were inspired by Wallich-Clifford’s work co-founding the Simon Community, a network of homelessness centres which mushroomed across the UK and Ireland in the Sixties and Seventies.

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And yet today, few people know of Wallich-Clifford who was born a hundred years ago and died in 1978 aged 55. Bereft even of his own Wikipedia entry, his influence remains largely unacknowledged.

“There is no doubt that Anton has gone unrecognised as one of the great agents of change in UK society,” said Chris Hunton, chair of the Simon Community. “The work that he did changed the perception of the homeless and shone a light on the causes of homelessness.” 

Now, however, a campaign is underway to earn him belated recognition.

His supporters, who include his widow, Marie-Therese Gibson-Watt, want Wallich-Clifford commemorated with a blue plaque at the site of the Simon Community’s original London house in Chalk Farm, where homeless residents still perform street outreach in line with the charity’s original communal ethos.

“We want it to recognise the profound change that Anton made in society,” said Gibson-Watt.

“Before Anton, most of the organisations that existed to tackle homelessness were a legacy of the philanthropic Victorian era. Every big city had hostels for hundreds and hundreds of people, mainly men. Plus, there were still remnants of the workhouse system, although they were called government reception centres by then.

“Almost everything was completely top-down. Even in the Salvation Army hostels, you had to pray, and you had to pay for your knife and fork. You went up to bed in numbers.”

Wallich-Clifford was critical of this approach and believed it failed those scarred by mental health issues, including the war veterans he encountered suffering from PTSD.

“People believe that you can stop homelessness,” Gibson-Watt said. “Anton appreciated that there are things that can happen in people’s lives that can make it difficult for them to function, like complex trauma.”

This is at odds with those who believe a complete end to homelessness is possible, a view recently promoted by the Prince of Wales.

“Any prominent person who’s willing to bring social problems to the attention of the public, you have to welcome that,” Gibson-Watt said. “But there will always be people who don’t understand other people, they get jobs, fall out of jobs, they don’t understand themselves, they misunderstand other people and that becomes chronic for them. And they end up just falling out of society because they can’t handle it.”

To meet these people’s needs, the Simon Community trained thousands of volunteers who lived in houses with homeless people, cooking and sharing chores, a therapeutic model that built trust and brought structure to chaotic lives – including those with addictions.

“Anton believed that there was no point in saying to somebody ‘we’ll take you in when you get sober, or we’ll take you in when you come off drugs’,” Gibson-Watt said. “He would blend in with them and he would, if the meths bottle was being passed around, at least put it to his lips.”

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Arriving back from their honeymoon in 1967, the couple opened a house for addicts in east London, a radical departure from how drug users had previously been treated but a model that was later widely emulated.

“There were people being prescribed British pharmaceutical grade heroin, cocaine and liquid methadone,” Gibson-Watt said. “It was a sort of upside-down life there because they mainly slept during the day and were active at night. This approach was very influential and cutting edge at the time.”

A charismatic speaker who toured the country promoting the Simon Community’s ideals, Wallich-Clifford understood the power of publicity. Dads’ Army actor John Le Mesurier was a patron and in 1978 a BBC appeal for the charity raised £34,000 – £250,000 in today’s money. Photographs of homeless people in London by the renowned photojournalist Sir Don McCullin feature in Wallich-Clifford’s plaintive memoir, No Fixed Abode.

homelessness charity Simon Community
Members of Simon Community held a picnic to mark Anton Wallich-Clifford’s 100th birthday earlier this summer. Image: Simon Community

His influence was pervasive. One supporter inspired by his work with meth addicts left to form St Mungo’s. An alliance with a Soho church to tackle homelessness in Central London was the genesis of the charity Centrepoint. A story the writer Jeremy Sandford produced for Social Action, a newsletter founded by Wallich-Clifford, went on to become Cathy Come Home, the Ken Loach-directed BBC drama whose shocking depiction of a family’s descent into homelessness provoked a national furore, triggered changes to the law, and led to the creation of the charity, Crisis.

“Anton was a visionary who drove the visibility of the homeless and awareness of the causes of homelessness,” Hunton said. “He emphasised that society shouldn’t look away and The Simon Community and the other charities he helped start, are his legacy.” 

Although he did not press it on others, Wallich-Clifford’s own inspiration was based in part on his strong religious conviction.

“He was driven by the suffering of Christ,” Gibson-Watt said. “He used to say you could see the face of Christ in every person that you saw on the street.”

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