12th April 2018

CYRENIANS FOUNDER

In 1974, motivated by his own experience of being homeless, Tom Gifford set up Canterbury Cyrenians (now called Porchlight) with the aim of encouraging the local community to help homeless people.  

Since then, the charity he created has grown from a single hostel in Canterbury to an organisation that supports around 5000 people a year.

As reported by The Guardian:

Tom GiffordOver 30 years ago, Tom Gifford, newly discharged from prison, was homeless. In a London hostel he met probation officer Anton Wallich-Clifford, founder of the Simon Community for the homeless, and quickly became his right-hand man.

The homeless faced a bleak choice in those days; night shelters or huge, institutional lodging houses.

In 1970, Tom and his wife Brigid - they had probably met on the CND marches, which both supported - founded the National Cyrenians, a fresh interpretation of the Simon Community ideal. The Cyrenian aim was community living for homeless single people. The houses that Tom helped open were based on that principle, with residents and staff living and working closely together.

Tom and Brigid campaigned nationwide for the Cyrenians. The office quickly outgrew the Gifford home, so the organisation was moved to Canterbury, where the Simon Community was based, in 1972. And Tom founded a local Cyrenians branch there by persuading the mayor to provide a "temporary" council-owned house. It still thrives.

Tom was born in Airdrie, and grew to be a small man in a family of six-footers, due to a bone deficiency problem. He claimed to have been in the Spanish civil war, working as a teenage copy boy for the journalist Hannan Swaffer, and to have been injured there. Excessive drinking created a rift with his family. He spent the second world war as chief wages clerk at a Scottish aircraft factory and post-war enjoyed a volatile life and career, including two marriages (there was talk of bigamy), work as a freelance journalism, and a brief period in prison.

In 1980, Brigid committed suicide, and Tom's life fell apart. He sold their cottage and toured from Brighton to Aberdeen visiting all the projects for homeless people with which he had been involved - and not as a visiting dignitary, but as a client. At Oxford's Simon House, night workers told the manager of the stay of an "old boy who had claimed to have founded the Cyrenians". By the time they realised he was telling the truth, Tom was back on the road.

Canterbury Hostel

At the end of 1981, tour completed, he returned on Christmas Eve to the Whitstable Road house he had set up inCanterbury. He wanted, he told the startled workers, to be taken in as a resident. He stayed there for six years; it was not always a comfortable experience for the staff. And it ended when he was asked to leave for breaking the "no drinking rule". He could hardly complain, he told the Guardian, because it was a national rule on which he had insisted.

Tom collaborated with Jeremy Sandford, author of Cathy Come Home and of Edna, The lnebriate Woman; and he was the first chair of what later became the National Homeless Alliance. His legacy to homeless people is considerable; he gave them new homes in which to live, and new ways of living at home.

Tom Gifford, campaigner for homeless, born February 15, 1920; died June 1, 1999