THIS week in Shout About Swindon, we are celebrating the history of a scheme which has supported homeless people in the town for decades.

A group of volunteers known as the Swindon Cyrenians got together in the 1970s to bring soup to rough sleepers in derelict town centre houses.

This simple lifeline quickly grew into a busy night shelter opened in 1977 and then expanded into a series of community houses where young volunteers lived in the run-down homes with the people they supported.

Sherry Waldon’s husband Tom was the chairman of the group from 1974 to 1984.

She said: “It was a chaotic organisation but a wonderful one. I hugely admired what the committee was doing and I was proud to be part of it in some way – there was a lot of laughter as well as sadness, exasperation and frustration.

“Thamesdown Housing Association leased us the houses for minimal rent, the committee would do them up to the minimum acceptable standard using DHSS money and council grants, then the volunteers would cook and clean and provide emotional and practical support. It was a very hand-to-mouth existence.

“Our home provided a refuge for volunteers on their days off and Tom’s work was rewarding but also very stressful. Many volunteers were young people on their gap years and the strain was so great that most only stayed for a few months.

“The group came about at a time where people were starting to become conscious about homeless people and wanted to help.

“They’re still doing a wonderful job now, but a very different one to volunteering to live in the same conditions - you don’t have the same closeness.”

Sherry has contributed to a new book about the Swindon Cyrenians along with other volunteers and committee members who spent time there during the 70s and 80s.

Diana Deal authored the book and joined the group’s committee when she moved to Swindon to work for the Adver.

She said: “It was one of the most fulfilling and worthwhile experiences of my life and I think we did a good job on the whole.

“I have lots of happy memories. We went on camping trips and days out which were a lot of fun. I remember many of the people we helped, like Herbie, who was very funny, and Singer, who loved to talk and was very philosophical.

“It was mostly men in their 40s or older that we worked with, often with mental health, violence and alcohol issues, and there seem to be more young people and women on the streets now, it’s still a huge problem.

“The group was just getting started when I joined and I think the founders would be pleased to see how it has grown from small acorns. It’s brilliant that it is still going strong today in a different form.”

Paid staff gradually replaced the volunteers and the name Cyrenians was dropped in favour of Thamesdown Housing Link which then evolved into what is now Threshold Housing Link. Threshold supports more than 750 people in Swindon by offering advice, support and accommodation.

Anyone interested in reading Diana’s £4 book should call 01225 868324.

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