Spice ‘shook the foundations' of our service say Sheffield drug sanctuary

Staff and volunteers at Ben's Centre.
Staff and volunteers at Ben's Centre.

A Sheffield drug and alcohol service provides a ‘sanctuary’ for people often dismissed by the rest of society as beyond reach.

Ben’s Centre on North Church Street is a day centre and outreach service which has been working with addicts in the city for the last 22 years.

Daryl Bishop, project development manager at Ben's Centre talks to a centre user.

Daryl Bishop, project development manager at Ben's Centre talks to a centre user.

In that time they have achieved a reputation for investing in their clients as people and trying not to be too judgemental.

In short, they treat them like human beings.

Project development manager, Daryl Bishop, said the ultimate goal of Ben’s Centre was to change the way the service users see themselves.

He said: “These people have often had a lot of trauma in their lives.”

A Ben's Centre user has a drink.

A Ben's Centre user has a drink.

“We try to generate a bit of self-esteem because they just don’t get it and it just compounds this negative lifestyle.”

“We want to address the reasons why people want to just switch off.”

The day service is run as a so-called ‘damp centre’, meaning clients can come in under the influence but can’t use while they are there.

This means they can often see quite challenging behaviour, with people coming in drunk or under the influence of notorious ‘zombie drug’ Spice.

Kelly Lawson, project manager at Ben's Centre.

Kelly Lawson, project manager at Ben's Centre.

Daryl says when it arrived, the former legal high ‘shook the foundations’ of the service.

For small centre, giving one-to-one care to a person in a comatose state was simply unrealistic.

“We didn’t have the staff to cope,” he said.

“We had to impose sanctions on how bad someone could be in order to come in.”

A Ben's Centre user has a drink.

A Ben's Centre user has a drink.

But is it the devastating effects of the drug, which have become so commonplace on the streets of Sheffield, that lie behind its success?

“The dealers actually target vulnerable people who want to switch off,” says Daryl.

“It is like hunger. If you were starving and someone gave you a bag of Skittles you would eat them even though you know they aren’t any good for you.

“These people are starving for one thing or another. That might be contact with their kids, they maybe struggle to hold down relationships, some might have trouble sleeping.

“They are in survival mode permanently.”

Daryl understands that there are many different perspectives in the city on the problems caused by the people he works with, and accepts that everybody has the right to a voice.

Daryl Bishop, project development manager at Ben's Centre.

Daryl Bishop, project development manager at Ben's Centre.

But he does ask the public to think about the people they see on the streets of Sheffield as individuals who have the capacity for change.

He says just mixing socially with them at the day centre - doing things like eating a meal together - can be ‘massive’ for them.

“They behave very differently here than when they are in the outside world,” he says.

“That is their public face and the more they feel in conflict with people the more noise they make - they sort of embrace it.

“But when they are with us we generally see something which is much nicer. We are blessed to have some real characters.”

The centre employs three full-time staff, two part-timers and a chef, whose salaries are paid via grants from funding organisations

They also get help from firms like John Lewis, who come in once a month to make meals for them, and smaller donations for things like kitchen equipment.

The work can be difficult, he admits, but the regular positive feedback they receive makes it worthwhile.

“Sometimes we get people saying I have had a good day today and if I would have been on the streets it would have been totally different,” said Daryl.

“They are just people who have been through the same things we all have - just usually a lot more of them.”

Ben’s Centre operates its day service four days a week - Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday - from it North Church Street base, and also runs an outreach service in the city centre for two hours twice a day.

Case Study 1 – Patrick Shaw

Patrick Shaw, aged 26, from Sheffield, credits Ben’s Centre with helping him find a place to live.

“I first came here because I was homeless on the streets, suffering with alcoholism and finding myself lost in the day,” he says.

“Everyone has a purpose but when you are homeless and you are an addict you have no purpose in life. The only thing to do is to feed your habit.

“Since being at Ben’s Centre I have cut down with the drinking and have managed to find a place to stay.

“For the hours I am here I don’t drink, don’t get involved with criminality and stop drinking - sometimes for the entire day.

“You can talk to staff about your problems and they have stuff you can use to get help like a phone and internet access. You can have a shower and feel safe.”

Case Study 2 – Anonymous

Another client, who preferred not to give his name, said Ben’s Centre was a ‘fantastic place’.

He said his drinking problems have got noticeably better since he began using the centre.

“I get somewhere to sleep and everybody is helpful and friendly,” said the 38-year-old.

“I was on the streets since last November until three weeks ago, and I used to drink five three-litre bottles a day. Now I have got it down to three two-litre bottles a day.

“They are nice up there. They don’t judge you or shout at you like some other places.

I wouldn’t have been able to get a flat if it was for the help I have got here.”