This article is based on featured interview: (Storehouse Belfast Interview with Alan Carson)

Where do you feel you belong? Where do you feel safe? 

It is… cold and wet and you have little very money…

Where can you go..  Where can you just ‘be’?

When you think about it: there are very few places that welcome you/us/anyone to be anywhere for any length of time without arousing suspicion, wariness –  or fear.

‘Hanging out’ can easily be seen as loitering.

Just being somewhere with no ‘good reason’, might be considered a criminal offence; your presence an apparent threat.

On a sunny Saturday the grounds of City Hall, Belfast typically attract a motley crew:  Goths, Emos, Bikers, Punks and Preachers… as well as shoppers. During the week the space is occupied by office workers eating their lunch and getting some sun. 

People use this public space to sit, to meet up and/or just see and be around other people. They are  people watching, while also being part of the  social mix.

This random Saturday crowd, an edgy mix of ages, dress-codes, beliefs and interests, injects a rich, colourful vibe and energy that truly reflects a positive view of the city and its people. Any space that is shared and brings together such diverse groups must be a good thing. 

But, it’s not like this everywhere – or indeed, all the time.

Society expects people to have somewhere to go, and to come from –  but not to hang out. 

Your home is expected to be your base and your centre; the place you leave and come back to. It is where you spend time – as much time as you want. But, if you don’t have a home of your own, or a community or job where can you go during the day?  

If you have no reason to be anywhere there are very few places where you are made to feel welcome. Your waking hours may be solely about time wasted and time killed.

For people who are already vulnerable, and with no sense of belonging, having nowhere to go/or be, reinforces their lack of stability and permanency.

This is an issue that affects many people in our society: pensioners, the unemployed, asylum seekers and those who, for whatever reason, feel horribly isolated and alone

We all have some experience of what it is to feel out of place and not to belong. To be an outsider is to feel at best – consciously uncomfortable. At worst – marginalised, irrelevant and unimportant.  The longer that feeling lasts, the deeper it becomes.

For a limited time (for a fee) anyone can access indoor places such as: a cinema, concert halls, amusement parks, swimming pools. There are also free indoor spaces – museums, churches and libraries. Other places you might spend time are: parks, ‘browsing’ in retail, or sitting in a café. But for how long?

Shopping malls simulate ‘the street’ but people are not encouraged to visit without a ‘purpose’ to kill time or stay warm. Likewise, shops that are designed to be beautiful (and expensive) are designed to  be select.  The staff can instantly tell by the way that we look and how we behave if we are potential customers. If not, they move us on.

 “Is there anything in particular that we can help you with?”  

The opposite of making people feel welcome, is an ice-cold reception designed to freeze people out: 

There are tacit levels of control to every space –  not just guards on the door, frosty staff and CCTV.

The big divide is not just about having/not having wealth. It is about having/not having somewhere/someplace you are allowed to ‘be’.  And, this is perhaps more obvious in a country where poverty is not the norm. Because fortunately, most people have somewhere to live .

Poverty creates visible and invisible, physical and psychological barriers between people. With that, there is the tacit knowledge and acceptance of who belongs where – or not. We are conditioned to ‘know’ our place and generally, we stick to it.

We read the space and recognise how it is designed, used and planned and ‘voluntarily’ adhere to the unspoken social/spatial code.

A quick glance and we know if this a place where we might feel decidedly out of place. A place where we are not welcome.

To feel secure in your environment is to feel relaxed, comfortable and calm. It effects a sense of permanency that feels ‘constant, safe’ and grounded’ – all of which is vital for stable mental health. However, that is not something we can take for granted.

For the past thirteen years Storehouse Belfast have been working across the city with people living in poverty.

As an organisation set up to engage with the city, Storehouse Belfast has created a vital lifeline for many, many people. To the most vulnerable it offers foodbags, free furniture, a free clothing boutique. But most of all, it offers a place and space that is available to  everyone. 

Over the years this organisation has evolved and grown.

It meets the needs of people  not just through donations of food, furniture and clothing, but through emotional support, outdoor and social activities. Above all, it facilitates a safe sense of place and of community – something people may not otherwise have.

Based on their experience of talking to different people who use their service they recognise that ‘isolation is a brutal part of poverty’.  

Poverty limits people’s choices: where to go, what to do and who to meet.

A lack of money prevents people from engaging with the community at large. It disengages the individual from affirming social environments and wider activities. Cut off from doing many of the things in places where others freely participate it’s not hard to see how/where/why isolation sets in.

It may take a lot for someone to ask for help. It can be difficult to take that first step.

With this understanding, the Storehouse Belfast team emphasise the importance of how people are received at their city centre base. Everyone is made to feel welcome – even before they arrive.

A big part of the Storehouse Belfast experience is based on the environment and space. They consider the whole ‘customer journey’ right from referral to arrival. Nothing is left to chance. They know that first impressions matter. And so, when people first arrive and ‘read’ this space they want them to feel that it is a place where they fit in.

The ethos of Storehouse Belfast is to support people with: ‘Dignity, Significance and Hope’. 

Realising that Belfast lacks accessible indoor space for people to go and to sit, they provide a place where people can come to meet others, be part of a community – or just ‘be’.

This is a space that actively encourages people to come to chat, mingle, read a book or take part in art, baking and music classes. People can engage – or not. It doesn’t matter.  It is simply about having somewhere else to go, somewhere they are welcome.

In normal (non-Covid) times there is a free monthly meal to which everyone is invited. This introduces people to a wider social community of people from all different walks of life. It is simply about people coming together, to be together.

The Storehouse Belfast centre is comfortable and clean. It is carpeted, has matching furniture and is bright and airy. This is an up-market multi-use space laid out to enable people to mix, to connect and engage. 

For people who come from different countries, ages, religions, cultures and backgrounds it offers a surrogate community. But also for those who might still be finding their way in life. Together, with an active mix of volunteers from different backgrounds, the mix of people is what makes it a shared, engaging and positive experience for all.

We tend to think of charity spaces as a random mix of donated furniture, more shabby than chic.

And that is exactly what Storehouse Belfast is determined to avoid.

A lot of thought has gone into how this environment  works and looks. The space, co-designed with the expertise and input of an interior designer, has been developed with  the determination that: ‘environment speaks to worth’.

Their intention is that the space must look as ‘far away from a soup kitchen as possible’. 

They achieve this, not just through physical means, but through a subtle attention to detail such as: using real (matching) cups  and mugs – rather than disposable. This adds a sense of permanency, substance and value. It may seem like a simple gesture, but one that creates an important sense of worth.

In the developing the clothing boutique there was a conscious effort to ensure it should be designed to look like a (commercial) retail unit – rather than a jumble sale. The use of quality fixtures and fittings (such as wooden coat hangers) are a reflection of how they want this space to be experienced. That is, as a designed environment, developed through considered choices. It is a ‘real’ space, not a thrown together ‘make-do’ space.

But, most of all, at Storehouse Belfast they want people to feel ‘at home’ in this space. That is: less like a visitor/client, and more like someone who ‘belongs’. An insider, rather than an outsider.

In an interior people will experience and absorb space often though the smallest of details. These may be sensed through environmental cues: the pile of the carpet, shininess of the glass, a fresh smell, how clean, how new. People notice if these things are absent, or present. But also the level, style, quality and choice of materials, colours, lighting and fittings. That is, if a space looks co-ordinated and well laid out – or not.

To every space we bring our experience of every other space we have ever been. We recognise the quality, level of comfort and/or shabbiness. And we respond accordingly.

People inhabit space. They will always sense, read and make judgements about space – every space. Which is why designers always think about an environment as it is perceived by the end user, from their position.

And, this is something that clearly matters to the team at Storehouse Belfast.

The environment that you create dictates how people respond.

Currently going through a re-vamp, the space is being re-purposed to enable greater flexibility, flow and use. Developed from a wholly human-centric position it focuses on the experience and engagement of everyone who uses that space: both volunteers and visitors.

People are at the heart of every thing they do at Storehouse Belfast and it is the ‘swirl of community’ that adds to the spirit and experience of the place.

They are immersed in building a social relationship with the people who use their service. This creates a dialogue of trust. And, with trust, people are more likely to reveal, not just what are going through, but what matters most to them. 

The team will spend a lot of their time just talking to and listening to people.

Everyone’s personal situation is complex and private. If it is something people have lived with for a long time it may be difficult for them to think anyone else might be interested. Or, that anything can be done.

And so, by engaging with and truly listening with empathy the team can respond to the subtlest of cues. Rather than relying solely on a voiced opinion, they respond to the breadth and depth of people’s issues and concerns. Because they are operating from a wholly human-centred position, they take the time, they make the time, to understand.

For those of us who live in comfortable surroundings it is difficult to comprehend the huge difficulties that many people living in our society face.

We live our lives in a bubble and rarely meet people who are not like us; people who didn’t have our advantages, life choices or strength of family support.

Significantly, what Storehouse Belfast recognise is that people don’t want just to ‘receive’, and ‘get’. They want to reciprocate; to give something back.

Most of all, they want to have the dignity to ‘be’ themselves. Not just be seen as a recipient of donations.

Delivering furniture to people who have none may seem to be the obvious solution to an obvious problem. It addresses physical needs. That box ticked. But ‘Home’ is not just an indoor space with furniture or a place to store possessions, to sleep and to eat.

“Home is much more than ‘stuff’. It’s a place where we feel like we have ownership and authority and can receive others” 

A sense of belonging doesn’t develop just from being surrounded by ‘things’. It comes from having a place where people feel connected and established. 

We all need a place that is truly ours, that we can control and where they can welcome other people into our home. For many of the asylum seekers who use Storehouse Belfast hospitality is central to their way of living, and way of life. Having a space of their own means they can (at last) be true to their culture and traditions.

Hospitality is the gift of being able to engage with visitors in your own space.

To be a host, means you are of a community. It means you are connected to other people in a social circle, and are willing to share with them what you have. 

And that is hugely empowering.

No-one actively seeks to leave a place where they are happy, content, and  thriving.  But, people will leave a place where they feel threatened, unsafe, and vulnerable. Even if they have nowhere else to go.

For asylum seekers, who have left behind everything, they must feel they have reached a milestone to be able to offer someone a cup of tea in their home. This reinforce their sense of culture and self, which aids their rootedness to place. Having that level of personal autonomy and control supports personal well-being, connection and value.

To put all this into context: at the lowest rung in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs are the essential physiological requirements of shelter, clothing, food etc. That is: living and surviving at its most basic level.

The rung immediately above relates to our need for safety and security. In order to be motivated to grow we need to feel free from fear, anxiety and to have stability. We need to feel that we have some control over our lives, and it won’t all disappear.

The middle section  –  love and belongingness – reflects our need to be part of a community, to have friendship and build trust.

As social beings we live in a shared society. If we are to develop as individuals we must be able to engage and connect with others – not just ourselves alone. 

Maslow’s final levels on The Hierarchy Of Needs focus on self-actualisation, personal growth, attainment, esteem, recognition and achievement. That is, to be the best we can be. But of course, without meeting the basic needs – that is unlikely to happen. 

People with struggles in their lives will have difficulty building the blocks in the Hierarchy Of Needs to grow. If they don’t have the cushion to fall back on any setback will affect them more. With one eye on simply surviving, it may be difficult for them to establish themselves and grow. As Alan Carson from Storehouse Belfast explains:

When a crisis hits, it hits the poorest hardest.”

The crisis that was, that is, Covid  has taken its toll on Storehouse Belfast.

The impact of two lockdowns and social distancing measures meant they could not carry on as before. For safety reasons they were forced to keep people out of their centre. For a time, the only provision in their extensive programme was limited to  the delivery/pick-up of foodbags.

In the midst of Covid, Storehouse Belfast recognised there was little they could do. People still have the same needs – not just for food, clothing and furniture – but for companionship and conversation. But many of those needs could not be met.

With Covid, I guess everyone of us has a new-found understanding of what isolation feels like –  and what it does to us. For those who were already in a position of vulnerability Covid is a double whammy. For the team at Storehouse Belfast it is heartbreaking for them to see just how much the progress people have made has been wiped out – or set back.

The Covid crisis and its wider effects on individuals is still unfolding. There will be consequences across the whole of society the full impact of which is yet to be felt.

Remarkably, for all that Storehouse Belfast has achieved and sustained, this is not a publicly funded organisation. Their funding comes directly from the general public through private donations. This is a true and positive reflection of the generosity and goodwill of people in the city to help others. It must be seen to be a hopeful message of people giving back and sharing what they have – through people-power.

However, there are very clear benefits to being independent.

As a lean and agile organisation Storehouse Belfast are well placed to respond quickly – wherever/whenever they see a gap, or a need, and how that might be filled.

Not having to spend time writing grants and reports and subject to heavy duty controls from outside bodies gives them maximum flexibility and autonomy. And that, essentially, is what has made them sustainable.

When I visited the centre back in June (2021) there was a palpable excitement about the imminent new look interior. The relaxation in lockdown and vaccination programme means they could resume some of their programmes and start to reach out again.

Quick to adapt through changing times Storehouse Belfast are already thinking what they can do to respond to post-Covid needs. Their human-centred values are, and always will be, central to their approach of empathy – and action.

Design is not just about how something looks but how it is experienced. Storehouse Belfast are continually designing that experience – not just with big ideas, but with a focus that is truly person-centric. They show how, with thought and consideration, a sense of belonging can be designed into a space.

People can now visit the re-opened centre which means they can be seen, and helped. They can be part of this space and place. And so, the chats and coffee… the listening…activities… and the work of this community begins again….

This article is based on featured interview: (Storehouse Belfast Interview with Alan Carson)

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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