by Christopher Howse
IT SMELT like a doctor's surgery when the man in the shabby mac poured some liquid from his little bottle into a quart cider bottle with water in it. He shook it and the mixture turned cloudy.
"That's a box-up," explained Jim, as it turned out he was called.
Jim has been drinking surgical spirit for seven years. I met him in a warm tunnel of the Bakerloo Underground line. He had just been fishing out some half-eaten sandwiches from the litter-bin and claimed that this was his secret. A little bite of grimy bread and butter and a swig of spirit-and-water. It stops the stomach bleeding.
Of course it really helps very little. He'd done very well to last seven years on Jack, as they call surgical spirit. It damages the brain as well as the liver, causing loss of memory and awareness. It sends you blind. And then if you lie out in the street you tend in the winter to get frostbite, which easily develops into gangrene.
Not a very happy life. But Jim was astonishingly cheerful (well, he did' have a full 50p bottle of spirit) and something of a poet. We happily scrabbled together on the floor of the underground train for some crumpled fags that someone had discarded.
It is with people like Jim that the Simon Community works, and there are hundreds in London alone. "Essentially it is not a task of rehabilitation," says Neil Ansell from the Simon Community. "That's because of the people we deal with. We regard ourselves as taking people who fall through the net of the welfare state and the caring organisations."
One of the reasons the Simon Community gets no state aid is
the small chance of rehabilitation for the people who come to it. "We have no paid staff," says Neil, "We don't regard ourselves as staff. We have a tea-run at weekends, and then there is a lot of strectwork — members of the community go out at night getting to know people."
That is what Neil had been doing when I met him. He was dog tired, but had a meeting with Camden Council later that day to try to arrange an alternative to the night shelter in St Pancras Way that is due to be demolished. Neil is youngish, with long hair and a tattoo. He shares the food and income of the rest of the community, and wears donated clothes. He smelt like a dosshouse.
The first step for the down and out who makes friends with someone from Simon is to come into the night shelter. There is a doctor there — you cannot have a GP if you haven't got an address — who can see to the frostbite and find out if the man has TB (many have).
If the man (or woman) wants to be helped then, he will come to live in the community proper. There is also a farmhouse in Kent, which needs to be renovated. The theory is that a change of scene can help someone change his way of life.
Usually people relapse. Some ordinary alcoholics go and have a binge every few weeks. A spirit drinker will be lucky to last more than a few days. Many people are mentally disturbed. I saw a photograph of one woman who'd covered her face with cigarette burns in selfpunishment.
The Simon Community . was founded in 1963 by Anton Wallich-Clifford, a Catholic, and the community still works on the basic founding principles he drew up. It remains "Catholic-founded and inspired and completely ecumenical in action."
It aims to care for the homeless, rootless and unemployable. It cares for men and women, and will not separate them from their animals. This is important, because a down and out may depend on his dog for helping him around and for affection.
What Simon can mean in practice is shown by the case of one man who used to sleep under the railway bridge at Charing Cross. He got frostbite and gangrene. He had both legs amputated. He continued to sleep out, levering himself from his wheelchair on to some cardboard on the ground. You might have seen him there. Simon helped him to find some shelter.
Hostels in London, some of which have been attacked for disgusting conditions are generally being improved. Two Rowlett hostels — which many find surprising to discover are commercial ventures — may be taken over by local authorities. But improvements bring with them reduced capacity. That means more people on the streets. A hard way to work out salvation.