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

On a sunny Saturday the grounds of City Hall, Belfast attracts a motley crew:  Goths, Emos, Bikers, Punks and Preachers… and shoppers.

During the week the space is occupied by office workers, eating their lunch and getting some sun. 

People use this outdoor public space to sit, to meet up and/or just see and be around other people. They are  people watching, but they are also 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 a positive, vibrant energy.

It is not like this everywhere.

Storehouse Belfast motto: Dignity, Significance, Hope

If you don’t have a home of your own, or a community to be with, or a place of work, where do you go during the day?  

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

If your waking hours are solely about killing time you will soon find there are many places where you are not welcome.

Vulnerable people who have nowhere to go miss the stability and permanency that comes from having a sense of belonging.

To be an outsider is to feel consciously uncomfortable – marginalised, irrelevant and unimportant.  

There are tacit levels of control to every space: guards on the door, frosty staff, CCTV.

There are very few indoor places that truly welcome anyone and everyone.

A quick glance will tell us if this somewhere we will feel  out of place. A place where we are not welcome.

When we feel secure in our environment we are relaxed, comfortable and calm. To feelsafe’ and grounded’  is vital for stable mental health.

 Storehouse Belfast have been working across the city with the most vulnerable in our society for the past thirteen years.

As a charity they meet the needs of vulnerable people  not just through donations of food, furniture and clothing, but by providing emotional support, outdoor and social activities.

Most of all they provide a safe place for people to go, and a community that is available to everyone. 

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

From working with vulnerable people they recognise that ‘isolation is a brutal part of poverty’.  

Isolation sets in when people disengage from affirming social environments and wider activities.

Storehouse Belfast  breakfast club

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

How do people experience space, and place? What would put them off coming here? What would encourage them to stay?

From referral to arrival the team at Storehouse Belfast consider the whole ‘customer journey’. Their human-centric approach reflects a service that is fully designed – and continually tweaked.

This is a space where people are welcome.

Here, they have an opportunity to meet others and – if they so choose – to participate and become part of the wider community.

Or…. just to have somewhere to sit, for as long as they like.

And so, when someone visits their city centre base for the first time the team consider how they are received. That is, the warmth of the welcome and level of sensitivity in how they are approached.

The Storehouse Belfast centre is an up-market multi-use space that encourages people to connect and engage.

Comfortable and clean, it is a modern, bright, carpeted space with matching furniture.

Co-designed with the expertise and input of an interior designer, the space has been developed so that the ‘environment speaks to worth’.

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

They recognise that whatever people sense and see, and how they are treated, is reflected in the quality of the space. And so, the interior design is very much a part of how they are made to feel ‘ welcome’ . In this respect the environment sets a tone for their experience; the layout, lighting and quality of materials. It affects how they respond to the space, and to other people within the space.

At Storehouse Belfast the attention to detail reflects the importance of creating a sense of permanency, substance and value.

Simple gestures mean a lot.

Such as: using real (matching) cups  saucers and mugs – rather than disposable.

This design ethos follows though on every aspect of their service.

When they decided to open a clothing boutique it was a conscious effort to ensure that the interior design should look like a retail store – rather than a jumble sale. A shop, rather than a charity.

Their insistence in using quality fixtures and fittings ( ie. wooden coat hangers) means that the space is designed to be a quality experience.

Storehouse Belfast Bake events

This is not a typical ‘make-do’ space, comprised of random elements. It is a designed space.

Ands , it is through this attention to detail Storehouse Belfast tells people that they matter.

They believe that once people feel ‘at home’ in a space (less like of an outsider) they will feel they belong.

People experience interior design through environmental cues; the pile of the carpet, shininess of the glass, a fresh smell, how clean, how new.

They notice when these things are present – or absent.

A designed space has spatial cohesion, style, quality and choice of materials, colours, lighting and fittings. It is a space that is co-ordinated and well laid out, comfortable and inviting.

To every space the encounter people bring their experience of every other space.

And they respond accordingly.

There is a certain quality of space that we are used to and that we come to expect – and those that are…better… or worse.

The job of a designer is to always think about an environment as it will be perceived by the end user. It does not have to be luxurious, or expensive, to feel comfortable.

The environment that you create dictates how people respond.

At Storehouse Belfast they fully respect design values.

People are at the heart of everything at Storehouse Belfast.

They believe that the ‘swirl of community’, the diversity or people, adds to the spirit and experience of the place.

Because they know that some of their visitors to their services will have been through traumatic and difficult experiences, they recognise that they need to building a positive social relationship to create that dialogue of trust.

They don’t rush people or push them to participate. Instead, they give people time – time to think, to be and to feel comfortable.

Operating from a wholly human-centred position, the staff take the time to listen, and to understand.

Storehouse Belfast 'Create' events.

Storehouse Belfast is open to people from all cultures and walks of life.

The team at Storehouse Belfast recognise how important it is for people from different culture not just receive but to be able to give something back. To be able to share what they have means they are connected to other people in a social circle. This helps to reinforce their sense of culture and self, and their rootedness to place.

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

For displaced people, such as asylum seekers, the team at Storehouse Belfast recognise how important it is for them to be able to connect with other people.

Living in a different country, culture and way of life, ‘home’ is more than just a place to live. A sense of belonging comes from feeling connected and established, and where people can comfortably sustain their culture and traditions.

While many are grateful for support and help, it is significant  point in their lives when they can give something back – such as offering someone a visitor a cup of tea in their home.

It may seem like a small thing but the team at Storehouse Belfast recognise the mutual sense of dignity that comes from sharing what you have with others – even when you have nothing. And so, as a charity they don’t just deliver goods (food, furniture, clothes) and run. They respect when people want to reciprocate the gesture in some way, because it may be important to them, their culture and their way of life.

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

As Alan Carson explains:

When Covid hit, Storehouse Belfast had to cut back on all their services. Lockdown 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. During this period the only element left in their programme was the delivery/pick-up of foodbags.

All their social activities had to stop.

At the point of the interview they were just getting started again and dealing with people’s additional trauma of imposed isolation and loneliness.

All the services at Storehouse Belfast are designed to fill the gaps in the existing provision.

Because they are a lean and agile organisation Storehouse Belfast are able to respond quickly wherever/whenever there is a need before it becomes a crisis. They are sensitive to subtle changes in society as a result of where policies fail, where budgets dry up and where situations change.

As a human-centric organisation people will always be a part of this space and place.

And so… all the chats and coffee… the listening and talking…social activities… and the work of this community begins again.

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

The images of people are from Age Positive Image Library, available at the Centre for Ageing Better.

Nuala Rooney

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

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