Vital community lifeline faces county funding axe

A DAY centre for some of the most vulnerable members of the St Albans community has had its funding axed.

The Trinity Community Project in Beaconsfield Road, which has been helping adults with learning difficulties and mental health issues for 25 years, will have to start charging for the service when the funding from Herts County Council (HCC) stops at the end of March, as revealed exclusively by this week’s Herts Advertiser.

The centre was funded by the Joint Commissioning Team – a partnership between HCC and the NHS – at a cost of just over �50,000 per year but the service, which is celebrating its silver jubilee this month, was told at the end of last year that this would stop.

Peter Howey, who has been manager of the centre for 13 years, said that many of the some 50 users – who range from 18 to over 90 in age – will be unable to afford to pay which will result in them falling through the net as other services are unlikely to be suitable.

He continued: “The only way forward is to start charging clients but these people are on low incomes and some of them can’t even afford a small charge. It is desperate, there is probably going to be up to a third of them that can’t continue to come. It may not be classed as an ‘essential’ service but to them it is essential.”

“We are quite a small and friendly, informal place for people who don’t fit into mainstream services, they come to us because they have found other services too structured. And even now the other mainstream services are facing cuts.

“It is a lifeline of friendship and support for the people that come. There are lots of vulnerable people and for them it is a safe haven. Some of our volunteers have learning disabilities too so it is supporting them as well – it is quite a big community of people.”

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The day centre, which is open between 10am and 3.30pm five days a week, takes in a variety of people with different needs including the elderly and puts on a range of activities from dancing to cookery classes, and even organises day trips.

Mr Howey, whose deputy manager Rebecca De Smet has also been working at the centre for 13 years, said he felt that he was being forced into turning the day centre into a business. He added: “We are all about individuals and people need to be taken into consideration, this is purely a money-orientated decision. These are vulnerable people but the care has been taken out of caring. I didn’t come into this job to be a business person, I wanted to look after people.”

Maureen Alexander, whose elderly uncle used the centre for four years until he recently became too frail, said: “My uncle is deaf and for a long time he felt very isolated and had become quite despondent and withdrawn but they were so kind to him and inclusive that for the first time I saw him enjoying going somewhere.

“He had been to other clubs and other drop in centres but hadn’t felt comfortable in one of them. He felt comfortable at Trinity with these people. It is extremely well-run, very inclusive, very homely and made people feel comfortable and allowed them to make friends.”

She added: “I was reading somewhere that Mervyn King said that all of these cuts were down to the bankers so how about the bankers in St Albans get together �53,000 between them to keep Trinity open.”

Since being approached by the Herts Advertiser and on receiving a letter from the day centre asking for a rethink, HCC has now agreed to provide a contribution towards heating and lighting but it still leaves the centre with a massive funding shortfall.

A spokesperson for the county council did not comment on the day centre specifically but said the move was down to spending squeezes in “prevention and wellbeing services” provided by the community and voluntary sector.

He continued: “We need to make savings of 25 per cent from April 2011 and ensure that this reduced funding is spent where it will have the best impact. We have been working closely with NHS Hertfordshire and consulted widely with all organisations which may be affected, encouraging them to have their say in how we can work together more effectively and efficiently.

“All projects have been individually reviewed to assess the benefits they bring and their value for money.

“We have taken care to mitigate the impact of any funding reductions on organisations, service users and carers. For example, we will offer support and advice to organisations seeking other funding and work with them to help users access other local services where possible.”