A place of sanctuary and support - Ben's Centre - 13/09/2018
Reading back over my notes from my morning spent at Ben’s Centre chatting to staff, volunteers and guests, there’s one word that stands out above all others due to the number of times I heard it spoken about the place. That word is sanctuary. Pretty much everyone I spoke to used the word to describe what Ben’s Centre meant to them personally. And I can understand why.
From the moment I was greeted at the door of the Centre, which was set up 21 years ago as a place of refuge and support for street drinkers in the city, there was an air of calm. Everybody was friendly and welcoming and wanted to chat and share their experiences. The staff and volunteers know all of the guests really well; sharing a joke, mocking each others’ football teams, and discussing what they hoped was on the menu at lunchtime, with a few wry smiles when it was announced to be Shepherd’s Pie. All of the guests were soon chatting in the kitchen, steaming mugs of sweet tea or coffee in their hands, enjoying the respite and feeling of warmth away from the street. I don’t know what I was expecting to find, but it wasn’t this.
Ben’s Centre is open 4 days a week, from 10.30 to 2.30 and offers free breakfast, hot lunch and drinks, access to clothing and washing facilities, internet access and activities such as pool, newspapers, a TV room and day trips. The staff provide signposting and support, advocacy and a voice to their guests, whether that’s regarding their accommodation, benefits, mental or physical health or substance misuse issues. The manager, Sue, described Ben’s Centre as, “a place for people to take a break and have someone listen to them”. And I can tell you, their guests can talk!
Let me share some of their thoughts and stories with you.
A guest in his 30s who used to have a drug problem and found his way to Ben’s Centre after rehab, described the Centre as a “refuge from [his] life”. He attends most days, and says it gives structure to his time, and is a reason for him to get up in the morning. The staff and volunteers were described as brilliant, empathetic and very easy to talk to.
A guest in his 60s couldn’t speak highly enough about the staff at Ben’s Centre for all the work they had done for him in finding accommodation, getting his flat kitted out, and for their continuing support. “If it wasn’t for Sue, I’d be homeless, or an alcoholic in the gutter. I owe this centre an enormous debt of gratitude. Coming here breaks the monotony of everyday life. It’s like a family to me”.
A young couple who were resting in the TV room, with graffiti artwork decorating the walls, called Ben’s Centre their sanctuary. Their place to relax, access support and try and move forwards with their lives.
Another guest referred to himself as an alcoholic but credited the team at Ben’s Centre with helping him to reduce the amount that he was drinking, and for keeping him off the streets and away from trouble with the police. His time spent at the Centre each day allowed him to relax and talk to people without judgement. “Without this place I’d be arrested or drinking in the streets”.
One guest was really keen to share his story of moving from being a street drinker, to now volunteering with the Centre a couple of days a week, making teas and coffees for fellow guests. He stressed how important a role the Centre, and also St Wilfrid’s Centre had played in helping him to manage his mental health and reduce his drinking. “We are just one big happy family” he said.
The huge majority of the guests at Ben’s Centre are men, but there was a female guest in who told me how the team were helping her with her reading and writing as she hadn’t had much in the way of an education when she was younger. For her, the best thing about the Centre was simply how people are treated like human beings by the staff and volunteers. Echoing the thoughts of many other guests, she said “I don’t know where I’d be without this place”.
Ben’s Centre has a dedicated staff team and is supported by several volunteers. I chatted to a couple of students on placement from Sheffield Hallam University, and both agreed that the Centre was different to what they expected, but that they were really enjoying their time there. A Criminology student said that she had initially thought the Centre would be more about recovery but had learned pretty quickly that the main focus was around support and maintaining physical and mental health, as many of the clients are older with more entrenched issues in their lives.
A Psychology student said that the main take away from her time with the Centre was a humanising of the issues of drug and alcohol addiction for her. Through her work with the guests she understood that circumstances had brought them to this point, rather than failings on their part, and like her fellow student, she was going to continue volunteering at the Centre even after her placement ended – “It’s hard to leave this place”
My last interview was with Daryl, Senior Practitioner at Ben’s Centre, who spoke to me really eloquently through mouthfuls of Shepherd’s Pie about the work that goes on at the Centre. He outlined the Centre’s approach as person focussed, so rather than looking at service users as a homogenous group, with the label ‘street drinkers’ for example, the team break down the stereotypes and instead look at the person in front of them, working out their needs and how best to support them on an individual basis. The real success of the Centre for Daryl is when they see service users take baby steps forwards, offering to help make teas and coffees for example, tiny and seemingly insignificant things to the outside world, but an indication of people moving on with their lives.
“Its about building relationships and human beings at the end of the day”.
Ben’s Centre wouldn’t be able to help clients the way they do without support and donations.
Any donations received are always much appreciated and are directly used to help those in need. To donate to support the work of Bens Centre, click here: https://localgiving.org/charity/benscentre/
The Centre relies on a small team of amazing volunteers – perhaps you could support the Centre by joining them? Each role is tailored to your needs and current level of skill with training and development opportunities.
Contact Ben’s Centre here: http://www.benscentre.org/contact to find out more.
Alison Riggott, SheffGives