Rebecca Long started in 2002 as the director of the Marsha Phoenix Memorial Trust, one of the many initiatives started by Sibyl Phoenix and her work with young people in Lewisham. During the following decade, Rebecca worked alongside Sibyl Phoenix, was still very “hands on” and continued to lead he organisation and take an active role in fundraising, networking and managing the project.
The supported housing project provides hostel accommodation for young women from a main hostel in Brockley and two shared flats in New Cross. The organisation aims “to give young women a secure base from which to develop self-respect, independence and purpose”.1
“It was set up by Sybil Phoenix, with her take on the world and how she wanted to do things, so it’s quite a privilege to be involved in the story.”
Their aim is to assist and rehouse single homeless young women “to try and reverse the cycle of homelessness.” All of the young women are referred to the organisation by the Lewisham Council via Lewisham Housing. Rebecca says, “We’re always full, with 27 young women at any given time.”
“If you can give someone love and affection and an understanding and a routine…thats most of the things that people need in life, to start to make a change.”
Rebecca explains that many of the young women they work with experience other difficulties in addition to homelessness. Some have had to act as carers for their siblings from a young age, or for parents with mental health issues, drug or alcohol problems. Many have been living in overcrowded conditions. Poverty, she says, is a factor in the lives of all the young women who come to the hostel. To respond to the challenges presented by the complexity of the issues faced by the young women that the organisation supports, “endless patience and tolerance and understanding” are needed.
While much has changed since the hostel first opened its doors in 1976, the organisation still aims to engender the core ethos that Sibyl Phoenix established in what Rebecca describes as a “nurturing environment”.
“A lot of the staff have been here a very long time and are certainly not doing it for the pay. We are all giving a lot more than we probably would have done for a more corporate or large organisation”
For Sibyl Phoenix, a key feature of the environment she created, was providing young people with homecooked food, a tradition that continues today and one that the organisation has to fundraise separately for. Rebecca says, “I think we always feel it’s more of a family than a hostel where we process people. We have a cook who provides a meal for the residents when they come in four days a week”. On other days, residents do their own shopping and cook for themselves.
The organisation is seeing the benefits of continuing to build links with the community and Rebecca believes that a lot more people have become interested in the charity since it has been connecting with neighbours and holding fundraising events. Local people are doing things like helping out with the garden, or making donations. She says, “I think if you do approach people, people are quite interested in local charities and fundraising”. That said, the climate of funding in the voluntary sector has changed over the time she has been the director and the current funding situation presents an enormous challenge.
“It’s a lot of responsibility to think how we’re going to be able to continue with the legacy that Sibyl Phoenix set up.”
Like many organisations, they have to secure the necessary funds to be able to continue providing a service to vulnerable young women in Lewisham. They are also upholding Sibyl Phoenix’s wish for the trust to remain independent at a time when many organisations are merging to survive.