Experiences of Being a Centre User
Different Centre Users, Different Needs
In its capacity to meet the needs of a wide range of people in the community, and through an infrastructure that catered for, but didn’t impose, personal development as a result of the multiple opportunities to transition between roles and responsibilities, there was a feeling that the centre was, like other family centres in the UK,1 very much more than a sum of its parts.
Although some people who came to the centre were in extreme distress, a great number weren’t and a substantial number of people came to ‘use say, the playroom and that enables them to have some time to themselves or some time to do something else when their children are very small, that they couldn’t get anywhere else’. In catering for those without specific instrumental needs—such as the use of services or the low-cost food—the centre takes on a crucially important preventative capacity for many of the users.
Sally was trying to hold it together. She’d received an eviction notice from her landlord that said she had to be out by the end of the week. There was no way that she could manage that. She had to work for the rest of the week and had a 3 year old daughter. She was in a panic. She felt she was drowning. She went in to talk to Helen, one of the housing advisors. Helen told her that ‘reasonable notice’ referred to the length of the rental payment period. Sally was paying monthly and so she needed to be given a month’s notice. This news was like the piano that had been sat on her chest since she got the letter this morning getting yanked off of her. She could breathe again. She got that very unique sense of euphoria that you get when, just as you think your life is about to fall apart, it turns out that it doesn’t. She’d experienced that a little too much in recent years. She had a cup of coffee with Gary, who she knew from years back, and then went back to her work. A month would be long enough.
For some the importance of the centre lies in its capacity to help them make the most of the period during which they have found themselves out of work. For these people, the centre provided not only a constructive means to use their time but a means through which to help them make the transition from worklessness to employment. For these centre users, their volunteering was used as a tool through which to gain skills, confidence and, in some cases, a reference to help them move back into work. For others, volunteering at the centre was an end in itself, a worthwhile way to contribute something to the community.
Another group of people were those who were characterised as being in dire or desperate circumstances. Although this group did not necessarily constitute the majority of centre users on any given day, the sheer magnitude of their needs, and indeed the huge impact of the centre on their lives, makes it important to recognise this contribution. In line with its charitable objective, the centre fundamentally focussed its activities on disadvantaged families and individuals, providing urgent and often crucial services to socially excluded members of the community who felt that they had no other place to turn. In many cases the work of the centre made a difference regarding whether people were able to eat or not. The centre was able to provide practical support, social support and respite for many people experiencing despair and destitution.
I think literally, kind of saving people’s lives occasionally with the benefits advice. We’re making a tremendous difference to people’s lives just by giving them the kind of advice and filling forms in for them that they wouldn’t get done anywhere else (Participant 5, staff)
There was a feeling both from centre users and staff that a substantial element of the centre’s work concerned people who found themselves in situations characterised by severe deprivation and despair.
It’s not about dysfunction this place, it’s about displacement, and this is a place for the displaced. And they can’t fit the model, they cannot, I couldn’t survive within the model (Participant 8, volunteer)
Many of these were people who had become displaced and drifted to the margins of contemporary society. The centre had the capacity to work with many, although by no means all, of these people in innovative and compelling ways. Of course, this notion of ‘displaced’ fails to really describe the many different histories, motivations, ambitions and needs of what in effect is a wide array of people who regularly draw upon the centre. For some, the practical support that the centre offers in terms of low-cost hot meals is simply an essential part of everyday survival. For some, it offers a key support in the battle to facilitate accommodation. For others, the centre is a base that provides a level of reassurance and peace of mind that there will always be forms of support for some of the complex challenges that might befall them. Here practices of care are often multiple and varied,2 choreographed by staff, volunteers and other centre users in sometimes explicit but often implicit and hidden ways.3