'Someone put it perfectly the other day,' says BrÃ³nach McMonagle. 'You only come to Dove House when you have a problem.'
As the centre’s manager, Brónach says she feels privileged that people feel they can bring their issues to the place which has become a core part of life in the Bogside and surrounding areas.
She knows that for so many people in the Triax area - which takes in the Bogside, Brandywell, Bishop Street and the Fountain - Dove House is a lifeline.
You only have to visit the local hub and spend ten minutes in the waiting area to see how much this place matters.
There is a constant stream of people waiting to speak to people for advice on matters relating to housing and benefits. The phone at reception doesn’t stop ringing over that same ten minute period. Welfare reform is a recurring theme.
In an area where so many depend on the benefits system to make ends meet, cuts to these benefits are catastrophic. Add to that funding cuts imposed on the community sector and there’s increasing pressure put on places like Dove House.
“Dove House has been here 32 years and last year was definitely the most challenging yet,” says Brónach.
She’s referring specifically to the loss of DIVERT and more recently the loss of three debt advisors, one of whom alone was dealing with approximately £4 million worth of debt locally.
DIVERT, a drug and alcohol education organisation, helped countless young people locally in an area which is already experiencing a major gap in services.
“It was a huge loss for us,” says Brónach. “We had a very visible local presence and were working on the ground tackling addiction and the issues around that. It’s just unfortunate that the funding was allocated to a group which aren’t based in the city. While that group carry out great work, we would always maintain that to be effective, we need workers on the ground here locally. Losing that service was a real blow to us but we want to try and keep DIVERT alive. Obviously we can’t do anywhere near the amount of work that we were able to before, but we still want to try and help people as best we can.”
With the loss of DIVERT and, more recently, the debt service, Brónach is keen to point out that the centre is still open for business.
“We are here, working and helping people every day,” she says.
“Our staff and volunteers are a credit to themselves and regularly go above and beyond to make sure that the people who need our help, get it.”
One of the major topics currently is tax credits, with many local residents receiving threatening letters telling them that they owe money.
“We are getting so many calls about that,” says Brónach. “And the good news is, we can help. Our advice staff have been so busy that we’ve actually extended the hours the service is available. We’re open until 9pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, open later on a Friday and we’re also now opened on a Saturday. We know the amount of pressure people are under locally and we realise that this service is a genuine lifeline for people.”
Staff and volunteers at Dove House have always had a solid reputation for dealing with the bread and butter issues.
There’s a One Stop Shop initiative for 11 to 25-years-olds who can access any service under one roof with their physical and mental well being the key focus. For the moment that roof is the one over the former City of Culture offices in Waterloo Place. There’s also the recently introduced Women’s Hub in Meenan Square as well as the Dove House Advocacy Project which supports victims of domestic abuse.
The Older People’s project has workers who ensure that older people within the Triax area are not isolated. Workers on this project visit the homes of elderly members of the community and help them make sure that they are claiming the benefits they are entitled to, as well as offering a listening ear on many other issues.
There’s also a community education project, in partnership with the North West Regional College, which is helping people learn a trade.
While some projects are run in the Dove House building, others, like the Youth Project and Women’s Hub are run on nearby sites. The hope eventually, under the Urban Villages initiative, championed by OFMDFM, is that Dove House will benefit from investment in the local area which will see it able to provide everything “under one roof”. TThe Bogside and the Fountain have already been earmarked as one of five ‘Urban Village’ areas across the North.
In the meantime, while awaiting investment, Bronach and her staff will continue to offer their current services to the thousands who contact them on a yearly basis. Last year the advice service dealt with almost 12,000 individuals.
“Dove House is a home away from home,” says Brónach. “Anyone can walk in here, from a street drinker to a middle class person, and our aim is to give them a comfortable space to talk about the problem which brought them through the door - whatever that may be.”
Like many community projects, they are currently fundraising themselves to keep their services in place.
They now have one major initiative ahead which Brónach says she hopes will be a major fundraiser for Dove House and the services based there.
On May 20 the Tower Hotel will be the venue for the £20,000 Drop.
Modelled on ITV’s £1m drop, the event will see eight people leave the venue with £2,500 each in their back pockets. Players on the night will be selected from the audience.
“We’re really looking forward to it and we want it to be something the whole community can enjoy and get involved in,” says Brónach.
Admission to the event is £10, and more information is available at Dove House, telephone 02871 269327