Paul Streets: Small charities moving the dial

As Small Charity Week gets under way, I'm reminded of how it is the grass-roots organisations such as London Friends that often change attitudes

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

Our sector has always moved societal niche issues to societal norms. And as we celebrate Small Charity Week, it’s worth noting that this always begins in grass-roots organisations responding to unseen need, often through establishing small charities. My recent visit to London Friend near Kings Cross in London was a testament to this.  

It is probably the oldest LGBT charity in the UK. It was established in 1972, only five years after homosexuality was decriminalised. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the community continued to experience significant prejudice, including violence.

Monty Moncrieff, chief executive of London Friend, recalls an era when its front window was frequently bricked. The "Friend" in its name is a reflection of the need it was founded to meet: Fellowship for the Relief of Individuals in Emotional Distress. In three years, it will share its 50th anniversary with Pride and Moncrieff is already planning how it will celebrate.

The charity’s London offices are pretty basic: old furniture, old IT kit and a large area of replastered wall at the back where the damp got in and it has not got round to repainting. But the real work happens in five sexual health and advice centres, where it provides an Antidote programme addressing the adverse consequences of drug dependency and, in particular, the rise of chemsex.

Moncrieff explains that – even more than 50 years after decriminalisation – part of the community still experiences hang-ups about sexual activity and many experience loneliness.

Social media has gone some way towards helping to relieve this by connecting people more easily, but it has also increased the amount of risky sex with strangers. And the rising use in the past decade of drugs such as crystal meth to help people overcome the anxiety often attached has brought with it catastrophic consequences.

This highly addictive and potent drug reduces sexual inhibition, but also has distressing physical and mental health withdrawal symptoms, including heart problems, paranoia, aggression and, in some cases, suicide.

The Antidote programme is one of London Friend’s several offers of support, encompassing psychosocial counselling, alongside one-to-one structured work through a six-week ChemCheck programme and SWAP (Structured Weekend Antidote Programme), an initiative designed to mirror a drug treatment day programme over four weekends, specifically targeting people affected by chemsex.

They achieve all this and very much more with just £400,000, with a staggering 100 volunteers supporting only 11 staff (seven of whom are part-time). This is a great example of the social value per pound that community-led small charities so often add.

As is the embeddedness of London Friend, a charity that has grown and evolved with its service users. This means that, like so many small charities, it is able to reach those whom others can’t, work in ways others don’t and stay engaged when others won’t.

Also, like the 97 per cent of small but vital charities being celebrated this week, it is addressing the issues that so often go unnoticed or unmentioned. It tackles some of the most difficult, complex and sometimes unpopular issues in society, challenging us all to acknowledge, understand and address issues we might prefer to ignore, but which, if left, have the potential to do untold harm to people on the edge of society.

At a time when it’s easy to be gloomy about the UK, London Friend, and tens of thousands of organisations like it, are a reminder of the unseen and valuable national assets in our voluntary sector.

Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales

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