Argus title : A place for hope and achievement

The Phoenix was a mythical bird, believed to live in the deserts of Arabia. When the time came for it to die it would build its own funeral pyre. Out of the ashes a new Phoenix would rise.

It is a powerful image of the triumph of life and hope over suffering and death. It suggests the possibility of transformation.

Brighton Housing Trust’s First Base Day Centre is a place of transformation. The use of the building itself is radically different from what it once was, for in Regency times it was a ballroom.

At one time the powerful, the wealthy and the aristocratic came here to dance and gossip. Brighton’s poor may have stood outside gazing at the brightly lit windows, watching sumptuous carriages arrive, but they’d have been kept at a respectful distance by flunkies and footmen employed to protect their employers from ‘beggars’ and the ragged poor.

Now the boot is firmly on the other foot. First Base is used by people on low income who are homeless or insecurely housed. If the rich and powerful visit today, it is usually because they or their organisations fund the centre – or because BHT would like them to.

The vast domed ceiling is still there, as are the classical pillars, but they look down upon an industrial style kitchen, lockers and store cupboards in which homeless people’s few worldly goods can be stored – usually in black bin liners.

There’s no crisp white linen, fine crockery or gleaming silver cutlery as there once would have been. Instead there are well-used tables and chairs. Though the crockery and cutlery are clean and serviceable, it is plain they were bought to wear well. There is no spare money here.

There may I suppose be occasional signs of drunkenness (though I didn’t see any) as there would have been amongst some of the brandy-soaked Regency bucks who staggered into the ballroom long ago – but there is now a sense of purpose which I do not believe would have existed then.

I visited First Base to meet Dean Manning, a volunteer in the kitchen. I’d been given his name by Jocelyn Dodgson, BHT’s Catering Volunteer Co-ordinator. I’d already met her to talk about BHT’s campaign to provide bottled water for homeless people and had been struck by how passionately she spoke about her work with the team of volunteers who help provide meals at First Base.

There was a once a time when catering for homeless people was done almost exclusively by committed middle class volunteers, the classic ‘soup-run Christians’. These were often very good and kind people. However, the general pattern of their activities was to do things for people rather than help and support them to do things for themselves.

Nowadays, however, things are very different. BHT employs excellent professional cooks, but now they are assisted by volunteers who know all too well how much service users need the food they help to prepare.

Dean turned 40 the day before I met him. When I arrived at the centre a huge birthday cake was near completion. It was a chocolate cake so big that Jocelyn, who had supervised the baking by volunteers, hadn’t been able to find a cake tin big enough to cook it in. “We improvised” she said mysteriously.

I noticed that though the kitchen is large and spotlessly clean and the equipment is well-maintained, much of it is old and in some cases very basic.

While Dean and fellow volunteer James Matthews finished icing the cake, I asked Jocelyn how many people attended at mealtimes. She replied “Well it’s about 50 – 60 at breakfast and then about 90 – 100 at lunchtime. The menu changes every day for lunch.”

She added “Today for lunch we had home-made lentil and tomato soup and then to follow roast chicken, roast potatoes and salad. There was pineapple for pudding.”

After we had watched Dean blow out his single candle (he wouldn’t allow more or permit us to sing Happy Birthday) he and James served everyone a generous slice of the cake. It took time because Dean moves awkwardly. He is paralysed down the right hand side of his body.

He walks unsteadily and cannot use his right hand or arm, even for balance. He has to do every thing with his left hand, from cutting to weighing, pouring to lifting. The simplest tasks require huge effort.

When everyone had been served, Dean and I went to sit in the Centre’s small library. I asked him how he’d come to be a volunteer. He explained that he’d never worked or volunteered before, but had been helped to apply by a staff member from the Brighton YMCA hostel in which he lives.

He was born in Brighton with the paralysis which so disables him and has been an epileptic as long as he can remember. In the past he had regular seizures, sometimes 3 a day, but over the past year he says these have stopped.

He attended Patcham House school for “physically handicapped children”. Though obviously an intelligent and capable person, he left at 14 with no qualifications. It seems it was assumed that someone with such severe physical disability was incapable of study.

He said with some bitterness “There were no exams at school whatsoever. I just left at 14 or 15.” It helped me understand something he’d said earlier which had astonished me. He’d told me he was “looking forward” to doing a Food Hygiene exam later in the week as part of the First Base Catering Training Project. He explained simply “If I pass I’ll get a certificate.”

After he left school he attended various day centres, but in his early twenties began to go off the rails. He says “I was losing weight and beginning to drink.” It was arranged that he should live with a ‘carer’, a man much older than himself, known to the family. He stayed with him for 17 years, but became homeless after the man, at the age of 67, became ill and died.

Dean has few regrets. He believes the carer stayed with him in order to have access to his disability benefits. He says the carer was abusive and used regularly to attack him “He used to head butt me very hard, even though I was epileptic. I did tell people but they didn’t believe me”.

Of his work at First Base he says “I love it. I love working in the kitchen, meeting new people and learning different things to make. The staff are wonderful and so are the other volunteers…I’ve learned I can achieve things.”

Fortieth birthdays signal the end of youth. They are often a time of self-assessment and transition and many people approach them with trepidation. Dean however seems full of vigour, like a man on the threshold of new possibilities. He is in the process of transforming his life.

I asked Jocelyn whether this applies to other volunteers. She replied “I think it often does. There’s the possibility of change and growth and that’s why I love the job. I think our volunteers are capable of so much. We are privileged to work with them.”

I’d heard Jocelyn had had her own experience of transformation, and asked her about it. She told me that some while ago she injured her back very badly. For a time she feared she’d never walk again. She swore to herself that if she did walk again, she would run a marathon.

After a painful recovery, she began to train. She ran the London Marathon for her 40th birthday in 2005, completing the Berlin Marathon later that year. She runs in Reykyavik in August and would like to run the Great Wall of China in 2 years time.

She said “When I was lying on my back on the floor in complete despair I didn’t think anything could change, but it did. And it can change for people here as well. They have such courage.”

I left the centre clutching a piece of Dean’s cake and a bottle of water. I turned and looked back at the graceful columns and elegant mouldings of the old ballroom.

As my eye was drawn upwards to the vast high ceilings I thought I heard the sound of wings.
It was probably a seagull – but I fancied for a moment it was the Phoenix fluttering there, risen from the ashes.

Donations can be sent to BHT, 144 London Road, Brighton (tel: 645400).

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