We all deserve a place that feels safe… that feels like home…. that feels like a place where we belong.
I oversee StorehouseBelfast but I am employed by a church as one of the pastors. When I first came on staff one of my jobs was to look at how we as a church engage with the city, and how we could serve the city.
I spent about 6 months looking at charities across the sector, different areas of the city, different demographics of poverty and who was doing what and where were the gaps.
That was 2007/8. At that time nobody was (in any sustainable way) looking at the issue of food poverty in the Greater Belfast area.
Charities were telling us they were coming across people who are going hungry. We asked: if we could make foodbags available, would that be of help? And that’s where Storehouse was born – with that desire to see no-one in the Greater Belfast area go hungry.
And that’s all we thought it would be.
We invited our congregation to buy an extra couple of items in their shopping then we made them available to local trusted charities to hand them out to those they were working with.
In 13 years we haven’t had a week that we haven’t done foodbags.
We wanted it to do it well, and sustainably, and not to be a flash in the pan or to go too wide. And so, for the first 4-5 years we only did food.
We are so much more than a foodbank now.
There are maybe 35-36 churches working with us right across the city. We have about 20 schools working with us and local businesses as well. That meant we could expand.
We became a separate legal entity and charity because this wasn’t about us trying to grow a church. This was about us serving the city and our partners, working together.
That also allowed us the scope to work with some of the statutory agencies. Given Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances, they couldn’t necessarily partner with just one church. Then four or five years in we had the opportunity to take on a building in the city centre. So, by that stage a couple of other things came together.
We had demonstrated that we were sustainable, and charities and local agencies liked working with us. They started asking: is there anything you could do for a family that doesn’t have bed? If someone in our congregation had a bed to donate we would throw it in the back of my car and deliver it.
One night we delivering some foodbags and a couple of items of furniture. The lady was a chronic alcoholic, had been on the streets, in and out of hostels. Finally, she had just got her own apartment.
When we came into her home the sum total of her furnishings were: four scatter cushions and a duvet. That was where she sat, that was where she slept, that was what she had to keep her food in – that was it!
We said: six food bags isn’t going to fix this. We can’t be OK with people in our city living that way. So, that’s when we scaled-up the furniture provision.
For us, the issue is: how do we offer the maximum dignity for those who are in really difficult circumstances?
It shouldn’t be about us showing up at your door and saying: “there’s a sofa!”
People should have the dignity of choice.
And so, we got all our furniture photographed onto an online catalogue that people could browse through in our building. Then they could pick and choose what they liked.
We maintain a standard that if something is not good enough to sell, we won’t give it away for free. Giving people a sense of dignity is really, really, important to us.
When we took on a city centre venue we were getting asked for clothing – especially from asylum seekers, refugees and folks struggling with school uniforms. So, we set up a clothing boutique. We laid out a couple of rooms where people could come and browse and try on the clothes and pick what they wanted.
And that’s where lots of people thought we stopped: an expanded foodbank that provides ‘stuff’ for people. But that’s certainly not how we see ourselves. It’s not just about providing what people need – physically.
Because we don’t operate under the same pressure as the statutory agencies we can sit for 45 minutes or an hour with someone and simply let them talk – and be heard. We give them a space to just to be heard.
From those conversations we began to realise that isolation is a really brutal part of poverty.
When you are on your own it doesn’t take too much to take you out. But, if you have community around you, you can actually bear a lot.
A lot of our folk, through either circumstances of life, or poor choices or whatever, find themselves in places of isolation. The only community open to them might mean they may end up picking up a habit. And then it’s a downward spiral. We decided that we needed to offer positive community.
From that point forward we tried to create an environment so that people can feel ‘at home’ – or at least safe and welcome. A space that helps them to feel they’re of unique significance and incredible worth.
The quality of the environment is really important to us and we work with an interior designer. If we ever look or feel or smell like a charity – we’ve lost!
Our first building had lots of bright colours… nice spaces to sit and to chat. We have tried to carry that value through, creating spaces where people can feel comfortable and to open it up as community environment.
We asked ourselves: what we could do that wasn’t about just about coming to receive, but simply about coming to belong?
Our community and creativity co-ordinator is an artist, and so women who come in for a foodbag, or some clothes… will sit down and make jewellery with her. But they do not need to come for a food bag, they can come for jewellery or pottery.
Anybody can come to our Wednesday morning drop-in (when we are not in lockdown). There are games to play or you can just chat or sit and read a book in a safe environment – coffee is always on flow.
We do English lessons, guitar… lessons… as a space for people to come and explore music together. We have a 2 hour a week open art group where people can come and learn skills or simply explore their passion for art. There is a women’s only baking group… we have a polytunnel where people can come and learn gardening skills, or simply be in nature – that’s therapeutic in itself.
We also try to create lots of spaces for people to give back in terms of volunteering, serving, partnering. It’s as far removed from a soup kitchen as we can get it.
Our monthly dinner is simply about ‘family’; to just be around others.
Whether it’s two people or two hundred people that’s still a community. Everybody serves somebody else and we all sit down together at the same time to eat around big tables. Some of our folks have never had a meal around a table with family before.
That became a really important night in the month and created a real sense of belonging. I felt it too. I love being around an extended family. That sense of community is really important to us.
The last piece of the puzzle for us is growth. For those who want to move forward from the circumstances they are in, how do we see them flourish? If you have a goal you are reaching for, we would love to help in whatever way we can.
I am no longer shocked by any story. In the last 10-12 years sadly, I’ve heard it all.
Because Belfast is a divided city, we thought it was very important to try and do something that spoke of unity and to look at every demographic of poverty.
That means we can be working with charities, agencies, or community groups dealing with single parents in west Belfast, as well as addiction in east Belfast…. Those who are homeless and on the streets…. Those who are in hostels – but coming out of hostels. People who have debt issues…. recently unemployed. Women who have been in abusive relationships…. lots of refugees and asylum seekers.
Plus, in the worst of the downturn, people who had a very successful business but lost everything. We have had people through our doors who have never in their life been under the benefit system; and that’s all new, and terrifying.
It’s all about how people are received.
Everything we do is digital, but we still keep a paper referral system. There is something really empowering about holding that letter and saying … I will choose when I use this.
Some people maybe take 2 or 3 months to pluck up the courage to say: Now I’m ready to come. We treat that as a really significant moment. It’s a very difficult moment for anyone.
For example, when you seek asylum, and are waiting for that decision, you are given furnished accommodation. It’s not always wonderful, but usually reasonable. Sometimes you get little local communities that pop up. The Red Cross do a great job of connecting people and they can meet other folks here.
However, when you get your refugee status, you are no longer entitled to that accommodation. Usually that feels like a backward step. It is actually a really positive step because you now have a national insurance number and can claim benefits or begin to work. But, it means you go into the same housing executive system as everyone else.
And so, we see single mums going from a two-bedroom furnished house into a hostel with one bed. They are then left to wait in the system. Or, they go to a house at the other side of the city and it’s completely unfurnished… their universal credit starts in six weeks… but they have no savings. So, that’s where we try to bridge that gap.
There are some wonderful organisations issuing starter packs … kettles, toasters… maybe a duvet or whatever. And, there are grants that you can in theory get to help furnish a new home – but that’s a costly endeavour.
A carpet, for example, can make a huge difference in turning a room from something cold and austere into a home. We can’t provide carpet – it’s too niche and needs fitted. But we will look at the circumstances and ask how much would you be able to save if we gave you a foodbag over the next 6 weeks. Could we maybe help you find the right people.. so it’s little things like that.
We’ve been in this building for 5 years.
Our centre is used heavily and is starting to look a bit tired, so we are about to do a complete re-vamp. We are going to move a couple of walls and do a full re-decoration so that when we are fully back open again it carries that value of a place where people want to be.
Up until a month ago we only had 3 full time staff members and about 200 volunteers. But, the power of working with 36 churches, 20 odd schools and a few businesses is vast; it’s a lot of people.
From: I’m here claiming asylum and am not allowed to work yet but could come in and translate for other – which is brilliant. To: I’m retired, or I’m on a year out from uni or I needed foodbags 5 years ago and I’m not a lot more stable and would like to give something back.
That swirl of community is so important to us, a place to be of value to society.
We try to create a level playing field. Somebody’s got something to bring to the table whatever their story. And everyone has some need to learn – regardless of their circumstances.
Currently, we work with the Youth Justice Agency and take placements, teenagers who are in the justice system, up at our warehouses ( 2 x 5000 sq feet). And we also work with probationers – guys coming out of prison. Giving them the opportunity to come and volunteer in a really positive community environment.
For me, the reasons why people find themselves in circumstances of poverty has been humbling. And there is the privilege of helping people on that journey, and to gently expose other people to individuals and stories that they may never have been exposed to.
We have one young guy who was on the streets and beat his addiction, working alongside someone who was off on stress from his 6 figure job because he was addicted to work. To see the two of them share their stories and to learn from one another is really powerful.
It’s hard to feel stable and grounded if you don’t have a place that feels like ground zero – the place you know is constant and safe. And if there is anything we can do, we try to help build that sense of home.
It doesn’t feel like home if you don’t have a chair to sit on, if you don’t have a bed to sleep in or a table to eat at. Those are the basic essentials. But, from our asylum seekers and refugee friends one of the best gifts that we found that we can give them, is to be willing to go into their home and allow them to receive us.
They come from a much less individualistic culture and a much more hospitable culture. We show up with a foodbag and you would think that when you have nothing the best gift would be the stuff that you actually need. But, they are not so interested in the foodbag. They want you come in and to let them receive you.
For them that gift of hospitality is much more powerful than the physical stuff we bring.
Getting refugee status, a house, or goods – all that is important, but the power of being able to be a host in your own home, that may be the thing that has the most impact on someone.
Home is so much more than ‘stuff’. It’s a place where we feel like we have ownership, and authority and can receive others – and that’s something we have tried to learn from those cultures. I think it probably was part of our Irish heritage… but has been lost a bit.
How then do we replicate that here? How do we give people the authority to receive others – even when we think they come needing ‘help’.
Often times we think we should be giving to someone in poverty, but actually the best thing we can do is let them experience their own gifts. And so, finding little ways to create that sense in the building is really important to us. One of the lessons I’ve learned is to stop ‘doing’ and just be ‘with’.
There’s so much trauma, so much hurt, so much pain. So much rejection that it doesn’t surprise me that sometimes we get lied to and played. That’s just part of it. We are not naïve. But, if we get played for 6 weeks worth of food. That gives us 6 weeks to tease out what went wrong for that person. You don’t have to lie to receive in this place.
There are folks whose challenges have been so hard that they never fully get over them. But…if you are not drinking when you are with us, that is better than drinking 24/7. We see that as a win.
Space and environment, it’s so important. The problem is there is very limited third space out there.
Lots of our guys, if they are living in a hostel, will spend every waking hour out of the hostel, because they don’t want to be drawn into some of the negativity. Which is not to put the hostels down – some of them are brilliant. They are just trying to find spaces in which to ‘be’.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like on a wet, cold day to have to sit all day in the library. Or, to have to buy a coffee and ask for another hot water, just to sit a little longer.
Could we provide a constantly open place, with heat and internet, that isn’t the public library? We find people come here just to sit and read a book. It’s simply a place where they can ‘be’… in the presence of other people.
The environment that you create dictates how people respond. I know that it’s important – which is why I bring in people for advice.
If you create a nice space, a place that feels warm and inviting, and you treat people as you want them to behave, people tend to live up to their environment.
For example, right from the early days we decided we are going to use proper mugs (not paper cups) and wash them every time. We don’t want people to feel temporary. Those little things are important for those who need that sense of permanency. In those early days we actually found cups that matched with the colour scheme of the room!
When we were opening the clothing boutique my interior designer said: it won’t work if we don’t have wooden coat hangers. All the coat hangers need to match so they line up properly, otherwise it won’t feel of value.
Then, a really high end clothes shop closed down and gave us all their coat hangers and fittings. And she was right. It just added a sense of: I’ve been thought about before I came here.
All that speaks to environment, and environment speaks to worth.
For the past 14 months, because of coronavirus, we are not able to do that as much as we would want. That has been heart-breaking for us.
When coronavirus hit the only thing we could do safely was emergency foodbags – from the front door or delivering them to people’s homes. We couldn’t let people into the building. This is the place in the city where people feel safe. They may not have a particular desire to learn guitar… but they know if they come to the guitar club they can be in the building.
People, who previously we thought weren’t doing much more than sitting on our sofas and drinking coffee…. we watched them spiral, because they had lost that safe space. Which was really hard.
We were doing probably twice as many foodbags as we would usually do, and were able to add fresh food. Then we had to find ways to begin to slowly open up the other sides of our provision – clothes and furniture. We are only now very slowly getting back to some of the community stuff, but it is no way near what we would want it to be.
Any crisis that hits, hits the poor hardest.
With Covid, we haven’t seen the worst of the physical implications yet- but that doesn’t mean it won’t come. At some point the finance and furlough is going to stop.
From our perspective, it has to be about balancing the genuine, legitimate risk to physical health with the longterm implications of isolation, removal from community and that impact of that on people’s mental health. For many people who gained ground in terms of social inclusion, and their own mental health, that has all been lost – or some of it has been lost.
Children have missed so much, particularly those whose homelives are difficult. What must it be like for families with only one device between three kids…. and who can’t speak English to get help… and have no broad band? Or, those kids who just wouldn’t do the work. There is untold damage there.
We have to respond to that.
And...we are asking the questions of ourselves as an organisation: what’s our response? What is our role? What’s our responsibility?
Interview with Alan Carson – Chairman of Storehouse Belfast
39 North Street, Belfast. BT1 1NA