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, and 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.

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 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

If your waking hours are solely about killing time you will 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 – or marginalised, irrelevant and unimportant.  

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

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

A quick glance tells 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 feel , safe’ and grounded’  is vital for stable mental health.

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

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

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

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

From their experience of working with vulnerable people 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.

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

This is something the team at Storehouse Belfast aim to counteract.

At their city centre base they emphasise the importance of how people are received.

From referral to arrival they consider the whole ‘customer journey’, nothing is left to chance.

Here, people who have nowhere to go now have somewhere to be.

Because this is a space where they feel welcome.

Here, they have an opportunity to meet other people and – if they choose – to participate and become part of a wider community.

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

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’.

The aim is that the space looks as ‘far away from a soup kitchen as possible’. 

Their attention to detail a subtle sense of permanency, substance and value.

Simple gestures mean a lot. Such as: using real (matching) cups  and mugs – rather than disposable.

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

Their use of quality fixtures and fittings ( wooden coat hangers) reflects an experience that is a designed.

This is a ‘authentically designed’ space, not a ‘make-do’ space.

It is through these little details that Storehouse Belfast subliminally show people they matter.

Once people feel ‘at home’ in a space (less like a outsider) they will feel they belong.

From an interior space people will experience and absorb many environmental cues. The pile of the carpet, shininess of the glass, a fresh smell, how clean, how new.

People notice when these things present – or absent.

A designed space considers the spatial cohesion, style, quality and choice of materials, colours, lighting and fittings. If a space looks co-ordinated and well laid out – or not.

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

And we respond accordingly.

There is quality of spaces we are used to inhabiting, and those that are… just better.

It is the job of a designer to always think about an environment as it will be perceived by the end user.

This is something that Storehouse Belfast respect and value.

The environment that you create dictates how people respond.

People are at the heart of everything at Storehouse Belfast.

The ‘swirl of community’  adds to the spirit and experience of the place.

At Storehouse Belfast building a social relationship with the people who use their service creates a dialogue of trust.

With trust, people are more likely to reveal what they are going through – and what concerns them most. 

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

With such a mix of services on offer, Storehouse Belfast encounter people from all cultures and walks of life.

For asylum seekers 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 they can sustain their culture and traditions.

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

For asylum seekers, who have left behind everything, it is significant  to be able to offer someone a visitor a cup of tea in their home.

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 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.

When Covid hit, Storehouse Belfast had to cut back on all their services.

As Alan Carson explains:

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

The lockdowns and subsequent 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 lockdown the only element left in their programme was the delivery/pick-up of foodbags.

This was a big set back. All social activities had to stop.

As a lean and agile organisation Storehouse Belfast have proved they are able to respond quickly wherever/whenever there is a need.

Whatever happens next, people will always be a part of this space and place.

And so… all the chats and coffee… the listening and talking…socia lactivities… 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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