This year Blenheim, one of the UK’s leading substance misuse charities, celebrates 50 years of delivering drug and alcohol treatment services across London. Blenheim is the successful merger of three organisations – The Blenheim Project, established in 1964, CDP (Community Drug Project) established in 1968 and CASA (Camden Alcoholics’ Support Association), established in 1977.
Much has changed since the early sixties when The Blenheim Project was first working with young ‘drifters’, drawn to west London for empathy and shelter. Back then, local volunteers were encouraged to provide overnight accommodation in their own homes for those young clients who had nowhere to go. Eighty per cent of clients were under the age of 30 and most of the young people who attended The Blenheim Project were uncertain in what they wanted, half-convinced that they would remain drifters, simply seeking a hot cup of tea and the clothing and luggage store. It was a challenging time for the professionals too.
‘I am not sure that we really knew what we were doing when we set up the Community Drug Project,’ says Gerry Stimson, now director of Knowledge Action Change. ‘What we did know for certain was that there was an increasing number of people in the area who were injecting drugs, and problems connected with drug injecting in and around Camberwell Green.’
Individually the three organisations were known for their ‘caring, compassionate and tolerant’ approach by the local communities and the professionals who supported and funded their work. Across the decades they have also been recognised for their innovation and responsiveness to local need – CDP was the only agency still running an injecting room in the ’70s, CASA delivered the first specialist services for the older drinker in the ’80s and The Blenheim Project opened the UK’s first crack day programme in the ’90s.
Blenheim is now one of the fastest growing charities in the UK, supporting over 9,000 people a year across London.
Its staff are not only recognised for their professionalism in delivering recovery treatment services but also for their commitment to campaigning and influencing policy, as highlighted last week by Baroness Hayter in the first of their 50th celebratory events, at the House of Lords.
‘For 50 years Blenheim, CDP and CASA have been proactive social change organisations, rooted in the day to day challenges facing those with alcohol and drug problems, their families and local communities,’ she said. ‘As Blenheim enters their 50th year of social action they are committed to continuing to be a loud advocate for those with the most complex needs in society today. Campaigning and advising the main decision makers is indeed a key and significant part of Blenheim’s work.’
The celebratory event was attended by renowned professionals in the field, service users, commissioners and supporters. Speakers included minister for crime prevention, Norman Baker, who acknowledged there was more to do in tackling psychoactive substances and recognised the impact of alcohol use:
‘We will continue to challenge the alcohol industry to raise its game,’ he said. Blenheim’s CEO John Jolly responded that Blenheim would ‘continue to act as a critical friend’ to government.
Blenheim also chose this celebratory event to launch London Calling: Voices from 50 years of Social Action, a book which not only tells the history of Blenheim through thevoices of those who have been involved since the sixties, but also the story of the development of the drug and alcohol sector in the UK.
‘It’s the story of how, together, we built the best drug and alcohol treatment system in the world, set within its historical and political context over the last 50 years,’ said Jolly.‘It is a celebration of the commitment of the thousands of people who have given their time, skills and energy to help those struggling with drugs and alcohol problems over the past five decades.’
A constant over the 50 years has been Blenheim’s commitment to listening and responding to service users. Tim Sampey, a former Blenheim service user and now chief operating officer of Build on Belief (BoB), is also featured in the book. BoB runs the largest peer-led weekend service in London and is now an independent service user charity.
‘Without Blenheim’s willingness to support something untried, without their courage to agree to our total independence and without their patience to put up with our wild enthusiasm and occasional unorthodox ideas, there would have been no seven-day-a-week provision and no Build on Belief,’ said Sampey. ‘Blenheim has truly demonstrated what service user involvement can and should be.’
Jo Palmieri is former director of business, innovation and skills at Blenheim.
Tim Sampey will be speaking at Make it Happen!, the national service user involvement conference on 20 February.