VIEW talks to head of Simon Community in Northern Ireland

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IMAGE: Jim Dennison, chief executive of Simon Community in Northern Ireland

Can you tell our readers about your background and why you chose to work in this area?

I left Queen’s University with a degree in politics so I’ve always been really interested in the dynamics between people who make decisions and people on the ground.

You were appointed as the new CEO of the Simon Community in January of this year. What did you bring to the position?

I suppose what I brought to the job was a very real understanding of the dynamics of community development and housing and how they are interlinked. I brought a background of persuasion and influence and being able to put together good solid coherent arguments. I brought with me a background in research and how you bring that research into meaningful projects, as well an ability to manage organisations.

Are you going to change what the Simon Community has been doing?

No. I think it’s an important progression route. A lot of people think that Simon is just an accommodation service. In my view, Simon should do a lot more than that. It had been doing that before my arrival but I want to up that.

Tell me about your new strategic plan that you recently launched at Belfast City Hall?

One of the questions that I was asked at my interview for this position was: “What do you think of our strategic plan?” Of course it was the old strategic plan so I had to be very diplomatic and say there are a lot of very good elements in it. However it is not clear in it who you are and what you stand for. So this new plan is about why we exist and that is to serve people. People underpin all of this plan. We’ve moved away from having 12 strategic objectives and 58 mission statements to having three core strategic things that we will do over the next three years. The most important part of our work is organising our people and investing in our staff.

Would you ever sleep in a hostel?

I haven’t slept in one yet but I plan to. I have been to every one of them and spoken to every member of staff. I haven’t yet told them that I’m coming out to spend some nights with them.

If you saw someone on the street, would you stop and talk to them or give them money?

We have cards that have the number of our freephone helpline on them and I would give them out. I have given money in the past, but I think it’s better to provide support to people who are homeless and living on the streets.

What’s your view on the welfare reform debate in Northern Ireland?

From everything I have seen and read if welfare reform is applied here, it will have a knock on effect – there’s no doubt about that. People are on the cusp anyway and if you start to take money away from that as well as rising costs on top of that, we will see a lot more people becoming a lot more vulnerable.

Does Simon see itself as a service provider or a campaign organisation?

We’re absolutely a service. Yes, we want to try and inform and guide decision makers but we’re not a lobbying organisation. We’re not in a place where we can demand things.

Would you worry that funding would be affected if you were to take on more of a campaigning role about homelessness?

I don’t think that government would ever be that vindictive to us. I don’t think that we need to stand with placards shouting.

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