This week we welcomed Gordon Laing to the Club. Gordon is a remarkable man. His first career was in the Royal Military Police, where after working his way up through the ranks, he became an officer in the Special Investigation Branch, retiring with the rank of Major after 30 years service both in the UK and on operations overseas. With his experience, he then had the opportunity to take up lucrative work overseas, but instead chose to become a charity worker helping to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society. He began by working for Hope For Justice, an international organisation devoted to tackling human trafficking and modern slavery, but then moved to supporting what must be one of the most difficult client groups in social work – rough sleepers, a group of people who are either excluded from, or refuse to work with, mainstream services.
Simon on the Streets
Gordon is the General Manager of a small charity known as Simon on the Streets, which since 1999 has worked in Leeds, Bradford and Huddersfield to support, as he puts it, ‘those who have unmet complex needs and who cannot or will not access mainstream services. Within that group the focus is on people who are homeless and rootless, especially those with issues related to rough sleeping’.
Gordon told us that in the city of Leeds there are approximately 1,500 people currently homeless. That is an estimate – the Council is aware of 545 homeless people, but there are also the ‘hidden homeless’; people without their own homes who rely on ‘sofa surfing’. Simon on the Streets concentrates on the 40 or so people who sleep on the streets every night. Listening to their stories, a common theme is a history of childhood trauma leading to mental health problems which the victims have then attempted to obliterate with alcohol or drug abuse. Their addictions become so fierce that they shun hostels where their drug use would be curtailed; any money they acquire from the public or through petty crime is spent on drugs, some lose limbs through persistently injecting with dirty needles, and on occasion they reject life saving hospital treatment in order to get back on the streets.
Gordon and his fellow charity workers have a difficult task dealing with such self defeating behaviour, but they regard the rough sleepers as ‘the victims that society has produced’ and know that, by patiently befriending them and giving emotional support, some will be encouraged and empowered to make positive changes in their lives. When a rough sleeper is ready to make changes, Simon on the Streets is there to guide the person to the appropriate services. Gordon is sure that his charity has saved lives through this empathetic approach.
In giving a vote of thanks on behalf of the club, Rotarian Linda Filewood told us that her son had slept on the streets for charity, and the experience had brought home how priceless is the work of Simon on the Streets.