Foyle Haven - a light in the darkness of alcoholism

Some of the clients at Foyle Haven enjoying a game of pool  (0107JB20)
Some of the clients at Foyle Haven enjoying a game of pool (0107JB20)

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Derry is a small group of people making a world of difference to this city and it’s people.

The Foyle Haven is a day centre designed to help street drinkers in Derry stay healthy. In reality it is so much more than that.

It’s a quiet haven for those in the chokehold of chronic alcoholism. It’s a safe, warm place for those who have been pummelled by their life’s lot and find themselves drinking on the street. It’s a place where they can turn when everyone else has given up on them. A place where they can get a hot meal and a shower. They can talk, laugh, sing and express themselves through art. It’s a place they can rediscover hope - be that in the peaceful and colourful kitchen garden or during a singalong in the communal room.

None of them are judged, none of them are ridiculed. They are treated with the dignity and grace they deserve and given the help they need to stay safe and healthy.

Based in rooms above an off-licence in John Street, the premises started off life in 2001 as a set of rolling, bland, empty rooms. The dream and conviction of Derry community police Sergeant Paul Sheehy and Sister Catherine Boyle brought the Haven to life and welcomed its first service users.

Staff at the Haven accepted street drinkers unconditionally, respected their right to live as they wish and sought to enhance their health, comfort, self-esteem and human dignity, whether or not they became involved in personal change.

It’s a place where people can be themselves, where their problems and needs are understood and where they are not patronised.

The Haven operates a ‘damp policy’ where people are welcome to use their services under the influences of alcohol, but cannot consume alcohol on their premises.

The centre allows them to meet their basic needs - showers, shaves, laundry, friendship and meals. The Haven also links service users with other agencies who help with access to housing, benefits, healthcare, family services, alcohol and drug treatment if it is wanted.

Jim McCallion, a former street drinker, has stopped drinking and now works full time as a project manager at the Haven.

“I used to drink on the streets of Derry every day,” says Jim. “I had many attempts to go off the drink but it was when I came in here and one of the staff said that I would make a great volunteer that something sparked in me. I went off the drink and started working here.

“Someone here believed in me. I saw there was light at the end of the tunnel. I’ll be off the drink 10 years in August.

“No one aspires to be a street drinker. The man you see sleeping on a doorway in the city centre does not want to be there, I guarantee you that, but drink has taken over his life.”

Foyle Haven has achieved a 50 per cent reduction in visits to A&E by street drinkers in Derry. Through working in partnership with other local agencies, it has also contributed to making Derry almost free of rough sleepers.

Over the last two years, Foyle Haven has worked with 80 individuals on 12,000 occasions and its health workers have facilitated over 700 medical interventions, including registrations with GPs and referrals to treatment centres.

“Over time, some of our service users may want to become more independent,” says Siobhan Curley, Project Group manager.

“Some may choose to drink less alcohol. Some even stop drinking and are able to resume their family and working lives. Indeed there are a few of our past service users who have stopped drinking, become volunteers and even full time staff members at the Haven. But whatever stage people are at, they are supported on their own terms.”

The Haven won a GlazoSmithKline Impact Award last year for their innovative work with street drinkers.

They have also merged with Depaul Ireland earlier this year in order to remain sustainable. They found the values and ethos of Depaul Ireland - a group which specialises in work with street drinkers in Dublin and Belfast - the perfect match for their own.

Life for street drinkers in Derry has been vastly improved as a result of Foyle Haven’s work. The staff and services have saved countless lives. Foyle Haven has 17 full and part-time staff and 10 volunteers. It is open 365 days a year.

Street drinkers and chronic alcoholics are a mirror image of our society. None of us can wash our hands of it. The men and women you see lying in the street are someone’s sons, someone’s father, mother, daughter.

As it says on the wall of Foyle Haven ‘The only reason you should look down on a street drinker is when you’re giving them a hand up’.

If you would like more information or are worried about a friend or relative’s alcohol consumption contact the Foyle Haven on 02871 36 5259 for advice and support.