Bench Outreach has its roots in a charity established by Don Mills. Don moved to London from his native Australia in the 1990s and founded Crisis Recovery UK (CRUK) to work with people experiencing addictions. In 2003, Brigitte Gobbe joined CRUK as a volunteer and with Don’s backing, developed an outreach project concentrating on the north of Lewisham, one of the most marginalised areas in the country. This project soon gained a formidable reputation for the quality of its advocacy for people who were marginalised and Bench Outreach -named after a park bench in St Paul’s churchyard in Deptford where we met people who needed our help- was born. In 2012 we moved to Jessica’s Heart, a newly-refurbished building on New King Street provided by the Jessica Mathers Trust which remains our headquarters.
Declan Flynn, who had worked with the project from its inception, was appointed CEO in 2013 and continued developing the person centred ethos of the organisation -working with people rather than for them – and embracing the lived experience of client and worker to create services the meet the needs of the individual and celebrate difference and diversity.
Bench Outreach services are delivered by a team of full time and part time staff: however the organisation could not function as it does without the commitment and dedication of our volunteers. We are funded in the main by grant making trusts but we are also deeply indebted to a growing number of individuals who make regular donations and support our fundraising events. We do not have a fundraising team, preferring to develop our funding applications through consultation with our clients, volunteers and staff.
Our Housing and Benefits Support (HBS) service, formerly Access to Housing and Treatment (AHT), is our core activity. HBS has helped countless people into housing and rehabilitation over the years – people who have gone on to live full and complete lives and who make invaluable contributions to their communities. Complimenting HBS, in 2014 we started our nationally recognised Housing First project, leading the sector in this new approach to helping people trapped in spirals of rough sleeping, prison and living in hostels. Housing First is a unique partnership with the local authority and registered housing providers in Lewisham and enables us to work with some of the most marginalised people in London. We also run a small supported accommodation project which offers housing for people who need some help live independently and to return to work.
Outreach remains at the heart of what we do and since 2005 Bench Outreach has run the Evening Service in partnership with the Bear Church in Deptford. On Sunday evenings, staff and volunteers, alongside members of the church, prepare and serve food to up to 50 homeless and vulnerably housed people. The evening is an opportunity for people to talk to us about their housing and treatment needs and to receive signposting to appropriate services. It has often been the gateway to engaging with people in a non-pressured environment and helping them taking the first steps towards help.
As the organisation has grown, we have endeavoured to develop a professional, efficient and effective approach to our work while maintaining our person-centred, client led ethos. All staff and volunteers engage in regular supervision, reflective practice and ongoing professional development and in 2017 we were awarded the Advice Quality Standard. While we continue to hope that the desperate need for our services will diminish, we see no sign of this happening in the near future and we are well prepared to meet the changing needs of our clients as they negotiate the complexities of welfare reform, the housing and homelessness crisis and political uncertainty.