The Provision of a Safe Social Space

Alan was having a cup of tea at the tea bar. He could overhear Terry and Gabe having a debate. Terry said that Dances with Wolves was called that because Kevin Costner’s character literally danced with wolves. That’s why the Native

Americans gave him that name. Gabe said the name was symbolic and they called him it just because he was brave. That there were no actual dancing wolves in the film. Terry said that if it was just a symbolic name then they would have gone for dances with lions or dances with gorillas, not wolves. Because it’s not so brave to dance with wolves. Gabe said he thought it was because he saw a horror film where wolves ate everyone and so he wouldn’t want to do it. Besides, he said, Native Americans think wolves are sacred. Terry asked him how he knew that and Gabe said because they were brave, hence the title of the film. And so on. Gary piped up that he wasn’t sure it mattered either way. As he found himself laughing, Alan wondered where these two would have gone today if not here, who they would have had a silly conversation about a film with.

Safety looks different for different people. It can be the familiarity of people around you, being away from a hostile home world,14 or from any sites of fear, shame, struggle and emotional toil. It can be refuge and escape,15 being warm and dry, and feeling a part of the world rather than alone. Often such places like the centre have power not necessarily because of what they are but because of what they are not.4 The poor are often vilified for having the wrong kind of identity16 and people on low incomes can often be made to feel different or apart from others because of certain experiences that they have.17 A majority of the centre users have experiences of mental distress, many have experiences of the depredation, suffering and stigma of being unemployed or seeking welfare payments. For those who had lived with stigmatised identities, who had grown used to being excluded from everyday economic and social life, living a precarious existence and relying on an unsympathetic welfare system, the centre offers an alternative social world to the one that they had lived in. It offers access to a social space where people’s perception of them is not dominated by whether they work or not, or whether they had been treated for mental health problems.

The open space and tea bar, where anyone can come along and have a cup of tea, rest, use the internet and/or socialise with others, is a central feature of what many people described as the beneficial properties of the centre. The benefits of previously isolated people being able to socialise with others are manifest and they include gaining personal recognition from others.18 Specifically, many of the people who come to the centre are given space and, where appropriate, support to deal with their problems. Formal health policies often overlook the importance of being with other people in the development of a positive sense of self. At the centre, the capacity of people to reconnect with their communities, to redefine identities, enhance skills and/or their sense of self, through being with others perhaps while undertaking health and creative classes—like art, photography and education classes—was an essential part of what the centre offers to users. It was suggested by participants that such an environment is crucial for centre users to transition from feelings of hopelessness and despair, to experiencing self-worth and capability:

If somebody needs help, sometimes it’s really, the hardest thing is to go and ask for help, so you can come along here, you don’t have to ask for help, you don’t have to, you know, engage on that level but you’re getting support and help and acceptance and that friendly word and, a sort of, just somebody saying ‘how are you?’ (Participant 1, worker)

A new volunteer on the tea bar had started that day. Penny had been a centre user on and off through the years and had decided to volunteer for a day a week. Sally was watching how she was making the tea and decided that an intervention might be useful. She said that the art of a great cup of tea was in how you stirred it rather than the proportions of milk or sugar but that not a lot of people knew that. She said Penny was just waggling the spoon about whereas it had to be a consistent firm stir. To be honest Penny couldn’t see any difference between their stirring styles but she was happy to humour Sally and thank her for the advice. They then went on to have a chat about how things were going more generally.

One of the key elements that places the centre in a strong position to challenge the experiences of social isolation and alienation that many users have experienced is the low-cost meal. In an instrumental sense, the low-cost meal is an essential service that can be the only regular meal that many centre users have during a given day and this makes it an incredibly important local provision. However, the inherently social nature of communal eating is also very important as a natural vehicle with which to bring people together and this was a central feature of lunchtime at the centre. Research shows people’s lives change very significantly when they have people to spend time with10 and lunchtime at the centre provides such a context. This is especially important in Brighton where the problem of isolation is particularly acute:

But the food itself, the whole eating aspect of it, makes people talk (Participant 8, volunteer)

The lunch was the central point of the day, it felt like the heart of the centre and Gary liked that all of the people in the centre, even the ones he didn’t know, would come together for that every single day. He could feel the buzz as it approached. Gary knew from personal experience that the lunch was a lifeline for some people but it was more than that. Gary liked coming to the centre for lunch, not just because he could actually afford it but because he was dining with other people. At lunch today he didn’t recognise the others around his table. One of them, an older chap, remarked that the lunch was nice today. Gary nodded in agreement and said he liked it when Gabby was cooking. She could make decent grub out of anything. The older chap nodded and they went back to eating their lunch in silence. It was good to eat with other people.

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