The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This town’s solution to loneliness? The ‘chat bench.’

A chat bench at Victoria Garden Park in London. (Jon Williams)

Detective Sgt. Ashley Jones with the Avon and Somerset Police in England was talking to an elderly widow who had been scammed. She would get a call each morning from a man pretending to be her friend, and he eventually convinced her to give him about $31,000.

Jones was struck when she said she didn’t mind sending the con man money. “Otherwise, I would never speak to another person for weeks on end,” he recalled her saying.

She was one of many people, both elderly and young, Jones encountered who were profoundly lonely in his community in Western England. So he decided to do something about it.

Jones convinced the police department to let him designate a couple of “chat benches” in two local parks last month. In mid-June, he hung colorful signs that said:

“The ‘Happy to chat’ bench. Sit here if you don’t mind someone stopping to say hello”.

A few days after the signs went up in local parks in Taunton and Burnham, Jones took a stroll by each one and saw people sitting there actually talking to each other.

"Fantastically, this has begun to gain traction,” said Jones, a 22-year veteran of the department.

Since the first one, he has facilitated 10 more chat benches, often in places where senior citizens are known to congregate.

He said the “Happy to chat” sign helps break down the invisible wall between strangers who might be sitting side by side but are uncertain about starting a conversation.

The idea is catching on quickly. Less than a week after the benches went up and the police department posted photos on Facebook, Jones started fielding calls from other police departments in England and Wales hoping to do the same.

There are now there are more than 40 conversation benches scattered throughout the United Kingdom, Jones said, and people in other countries, including Australia and the United States, have shown an interest in doing similar projects. He recently got a call from a real estate agent in Prineville, Ore., who said she is having several chat benches custom built, with the goal of putting them in local parks, Jones said.

“We have seen many new chat benches springing up across the U.K. and beyond,” he said.

Jones, 49, said the project is not just an attempt at being community minded — it’s also a crime-cutting measure. One of the reasons people fall victim to scammers is that they are lonely and isolated, just like the woman who sent a con man $31,000.

Talking to her “was a revelatory experience for me,” he said.

While looking for a way to address the persistent loneliness he was seeing, Jones learned that more than 9 million people in the United Kingdom — about 20 percent of the population — were always or often lonely, and 17 percent of elderly people were in contact with family or friends less than once a week.

Of course, the problem is not unique to the United Kingdom, said Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens.

“We all play a part in keeping our communities safe,” she said. “Simply stopping to say ‘hello’ to someone at a chat bench could make a huge difference to their everyday lives, and hopefully encourage them to speak out if they are a victim of abuse.”

While in London on Sunday to unveil his department’s latest chat bench in Victoria Garden Park next to the Palace of Westminster, Jones sat down on the bench to enjoy the ambiance by the Thames River.

“An elderly gentleman came and sat down next to me — he looked at the sign, and we started chatting,” he said. “He was 82, visiting London from Seattle, out for a stroll. We had a great chat for 30 minutes and learned a lot about each other and where we both originated in life.”

That’s exactly what he was hoping would come of the chat benches, said Jones, who is developing a “traveling chat bench” project with volunteers who would help set up the signs in even more locations.

“All who participate gain a positive outcome from getting involved,” he said. “The chat bench removes that invisible social barrier that prevents people from saying ‘hello.’”

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