Silent heroes of the city

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A leading organisation working at the coal face of alcohol related homelessness says there is a huge crisis in the city.

Increasing numbers of men and women with chronic addictions are finding themselves living on the streets and they are getting younger. Gerry Burns, manager of Damien House, and John, a former rough sleeper, speak to Journal reporter THERESA CASEY about their experiences of the growing problem.

Staff members at Damien House, from left, Babs Maw, Gerry Burns, manager, Martin McClean, Catherine McDermott, Gerry Kennedy, contract manager, and Gena McFeely. (0912PG03)

Staff members at Damien House, from left, Babs Maw, Gerry Burns, manager, Martin McClean, Catherine McDermott, Gerry Kennedy, contract manager, and Gena McFeely. (0912PG03)

Damien House has undoubtedly saved hundreds of lives since it was established in 2004.

A crisis intervention centre, it deals with the issue of alcohol related homelessness and the most vulnerable people in our society 365 days a year.

The organisation are particularly concerned that growing numbers of young men in the city are moving from the so-called “blue bag brigade” to chronic alcoholics. Drinking and sleeping on the streets becomes a way of life for them and their addiction slowly but surely kills them.

There are nine beds for men who find themselves in a crisis at Damien House and three detox beds to help those who wish to try to give up alcohol.

Gerry Burns, manager of the project, believes the over-arching aim of Damien House is “to ensure where possible no one is sleeping on the streets of our city.”

Gerry and his team of highly skilled staff are in so many ways the silent heroes of Derry, offering a welcoming, safe and supportive environment for those in need.

“People so often take for granted the roof over their head and with the issue of homelessness there is often a feeling of out of sight, out of mind.”

“These people never set out to end up like this. Each and every one of them is someone’s father, grandfather, husband or son. When people come to our door in need we don’t tell them we are sorry for their troubles and put them back out on the street. We aim to address their basic needs,” Gerry explains.

Damien House is a very unique facility and is one of the only organisations in Northern Ireland addressing alcohol related homelessness.

The detox beds are also a one of kind for this country. They are funded by the Western Trust and the community addiction team would pay daily visits to those trying to give up alcohol.

“They have always been there but over the last eight months or so, we have tied in with the Trust to provide help to those who would be suitable to undergo detox in the community, but do not have any support at home.”

“It is an invaluable service and we believe it is saving thousands of pounds for the health service, as hospital beds are being saved,” Gerry says.

The detox beds also give motivation to the dedicated and passionate staff at Damien House.

“We are so used to dealing with people with chronic addictions when people reach out and try to stop drinking it gives us motivation. It is good for us to see both sides of the coin.”

In the last year alone, the beds have been used to help almost 90 people detox.

Almost fifty people have availed of the crisis beds at Damien House in the same period.

“We have to remind people there is a huge crisis happening in this city. None of these people set out to be lying on the streets and it is a good reflection on our society how we treat those who are most vulnerable.”

“There may be an attitude that the men who come through our doors have burned all their bridges and why do they deserve another chance. Damien House is a project that doesn’t judge.”

Gerry adds:“There isn’t a city in the world that doesn’t have a street drinking or rough sleeping problem. The huge concern for us is that is on the increase, particularly with young men and women. We are now no stranger to this sort of lifestyle killing people at a very young age.”