Armada Community Hall is a community centre on McMillan Street, not to be confused with Armada Court – a small estate right next to the community centre with mostly council flats inhabited by elderly people. Bridget Perry is the Development Manager at Armada Community Hall and has worked here for more than 15 years, looking after the elderly and those in need. I’ve been visiting Armada Hall for some time now, observing all the activities throughout the week, and meeting the people who belong to the community at the hall. Bridget explains how the centre works:
“The community space is provided by the Royal Borough of Greenwich, and we are very lucky because the local councillors are very supportive and interested in what goes on. We have various self-funded groups organising activities such as the Deptford Divas on Wednesdays, Play & Stay on Thursdays (organised by Charlie Baxter), and others. The core funding comes from a local charity, and renting the space out occasionally generates some income.” Bridget explains that the hall was built around 40 years ago; the flats at Armada Court were originally built for the over 55s, but some have been bought under Right-To-Buy scheme and then sold on so now there are a few younger people living there too. Overall though, it’s mostly council flats which are inhabited by older people. There is also a community garden at the back which is maintained by the residents of Armada Court.
“The community we have here is the community no-one sees”, Bridget explains, “the kind of care you experience in tight-knit communities. Here, it’s about community networks that cannot have a value put on them through box ticking. For example, Lenny, who lives at No1, has a dog. When he went on holiday to Spain, he asked Vicky, who used to work here, to look after his dog. He then had an accident in Spain and remained in a Spanish hospital for 6 weeks, and all this time Vicky continued dog-sitting, making sure the dog had food and walks. Another example is Les at No2, who has problems with his eyes and came into the Armada once with a loose frame. Although he can kind of see, he can’t judge how far people are away from him and was worried he’d drive into people with his mobility scooter, so I went with him to the opticians. When we arrived, they were still shut so we went for a coffee at Rough & Ready. When the optician’s opened, we got the frames tightened and went back to the Armada. Altogether, it took just over an hour. It’s not always signposting people need, sometimes you just need to take people somewhere.”
According to Bridget, “the biggest problem in this day and age is loneliness and mental health, and sometimes people just come in for a chat and a cup of tea, or to use the loo.” She says you might plan your activities for the day and then the day pans out completely differently and you don’t get done what you set out to do. “It depends on what happens – one conversation might end up as one-month’s work, or somebody needs help with repairs and I email the council for them. Sometimes I might end up just chatting to people all day long but this is just what some people might need – a chat, company, getting out of isolation and loneliness.” People also often pop in and help out; there are lots of volunteers that go out of their way to help: fixing things, getting some shopping, bringing biscuits, calming down a mental health patient on the estate, and other things. “What box do you tick for that?” Bridget asks. “There’s no price to put on that!”
When I ask Bridget about the regeneration of Deptford, she says that the Right-To-Buy scheme in itself was good as it gave ordinary people the opportunity to own their own home. However, she thinks that the money the councils made should have been put back into housing, but they were not allowed to do this. Not doing that was “the biggest mistake and has now resulted in this shortage of really affordable housing. Some people who bought their homes under Right-To-Buy then sold the places, and now rent them out. Just look at the neglected gardens in Watergate Street, they all used to be lovely. Now you can tell which house is privately owned and rented out. People come and go, sometimes you have 10 people living in one house because they can’t afford anything else.”
Bridget is clear that nobody can stop the regeneration of the area but that little things like keeping spaces open to the public can be achieved by getting involved. “Realistically, just because we can’t afford it [new housing] does not mean they should not be built, but they should respect and listen to the local community. If we just let them, the developers will just walk all over us so it’s important that we don’t just sit there and do nothing. Personally, I think pensioners who live on their own in larger accommodation which they don’t need should be rehoused in nice 1-bedroom bungalows to free up larger houses for those that need it, but then there are no such places available, so this is not an option.”
During my visits to Armada Community Hall, I have met some of the people that come in regularly: the Deptford Divas, Deptford pensioners, community workers, volunteers and other wonderful people. I recently also met the Sir John Evelyn Charity Pensioners who meet regularly at the centre for Friday lunches and who invited me to their annual Christmas Dinner and told me about the work the charity does.
“The John Evelyn Charity is for the relief of the poor of the parish of St Nicholas and St Luke’s only. It grants a small pension to poor-worthy pensioners (as Evelyn defined it) in the ancient parish of St Nick’s, and gives grants to organisations within this ancient boundary. If there is any money left, small grants are given to organisations of St Luke’s as well. Sir John Evelyn invested his money well, and since the 17th century there has been this exceptional source of money for the elderly of the area of benefit. The money is used to help pensioners financially and to combat isolation; it is used to organise an annual trip (including some spending money), a Christmas Party with a financial gift, and a small amount of money paid to eligible pensioners each Friday at the Armada, where lunch is also provided on that day. The Armada Community Project is incredibly important as it is the hub where everybody can come with any issue they have. If the issue is not within the remit of the centre, the volunteers of the Armada will try and help in any way they can, often signposting people to the service they need, such as signposting homeless people to the 999 Centre.” (The 999 Club is a charity that helps the homeless in Lewisham and South London: https://www.999club.org/)
“Need has increased in recent years, but also changed”, they tell me. “The pensioners we know are fairly comfy – the main problem is isolation. Isolation is a major issue, people are lonely, but food brings people together and so the Friday lunches are great for that. However, those really struggling are the young and families unemployed or on low incomes – they feel the impact of welfare cuts the hardest. What we really need is a food bank, right here, but with Lewisham on one side and Greenwich on the other, this area doesn’t really fit into any category. The biggest problem is food because when one doesn’t have enough to eat, everything else becomes an issue too: work, well-being, health. It’s crazy that in this day and age we’re talking about hunger! Kids go to school hungry and come home hungry, and this has a knock-on effect on everything else.”
When I ask about the regeneration schemes going on in Deptford, they don’t feel it’s for local people. “People feel that they are being pushed out, they are unable to afford property, even the rent. There’s not enough social housing and yes, they are building Convoy’s Wharf but that’s not for the locals. And these café’s, they are not for local people. Many here are ex-dockers, they want a bacon and egg sandwich in a Greasy Spoon – not an arty-farty cake in some expensive café. Some new properties are advertised as being in West Greenwich rather than Deptford – well why is that? It’s just a way of getting people in because these people wouldn’t move to Deptford. The area is still very poor which is not acknowledged at all. It’s all done very subtly, it’s all just sticking plasters over people’s history – some families here go back generations!”
“You have all these fancy flats and the Waitrose, all of which entice barriers of segregation. On one hand you have £800,000 flats and on the other flats infested with mice. There is also a major alcohol and drugs problem here; there is a major undercurrent – people are scraping by, kids grow up in an environment thinking ‘I’m not gonna get a job’; the schools are bad, many people are illiterate, so they need to find another way of getting by. We’re not supporting this but it explains why people might go down that road.
Deptford is unique, you will never find anything similar anywhere else, and it could still be a good area but now there’s so much resentment. Look at Watergate Street – some people pay nothing for their house and others pay £500,000+ for their house, of course there is going to be resentment, on both sides. Wealthier people are being sold a fake dream too. They think this area is so up-and-coming and posh, but once you go beneath that posh layer, you see reality and we need to get people to understand this. We seriously suffer from overcrowding with people living on top of each other. This here is the reality, but it’s all covered up with sticky plasters so that the arty people don’t see this.”
When I comment on the amazing amount of volunteering and community work that’s going on in the Armada, they say that “people here do community work not because they want their name out there but because they care. More funding would enable the community centres to do more, open food banks. We need to keep things together, people have a need and they should be taken into account. We need to make life easier for those struggling; if everyone is better off, everything else will get better by itself.”