‘Some of Foyle Haven’s service users are the strongest people I know’

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Tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Jacqueline Gurney and I’m a wife to Derek and a mother to four boys.

What inspired you to go down the road of undertaking a degree in Responding To Alcohol And Drug Misuse?

I knew when my youngest started school that I wanted to go back into education.

As addiction and mental health problems are of growing concern within our community, it scared me to think about what my boys would be growing up in.

I decided that I’d like to equip myself with as much knowledge as possible and I was aware of the new Foundation Degree in Responding to Alcohol and Drug Misuse, at the North West Regional College, facilitated by Ulster University. I had all the necessary 3rd level qualifications to obtain entry. I began my study in September 2014 and completed the three year course this year.

How have you found your experience as volunteer at Foyle Haven to date?

I’ve found my experience at Foyle Haven very valuable to my learning and also in my personal life.

I have gained valuable insight into homelessness and substance misuse - there are just some things that can’t be taught in the classroom.

I have found my role as a volunteer and as an Evidence Based Practice student very rewarding and I thoroughly enjoy being part of the Foyle Haven team that has allowed me to provide personal, domestic social care to the homeless and also offer support to reduce harm caused to anyone who may misuse substances.

In your three years as a volunteer at Foyle Haven, how do you feel Derry has developed in terms of being safe place or otherwise for street drinkers and the homeless?

In my experience as a volunteer with Depaul, I have learned that the safety of street drinkers is linked with them having access to support services and some basic decency and kindness.

This is something that Foyle Haven definitely brings to the table.

In recent months much of the good work that has been done by the service over the past few years has been under threat due to budget cuts, leaving a reduction in hours at Foyle Haven. It is really unfortunate that the service has not been able to secure funding as it provides a service to people, that unfortunately, not many are willing to engage with.

How have the budget cuts affected services and the men and women that use Foyle Haven?

Obviously, the reduction in hours has had a negative impact on service users. Many vulnerable people in the area had come to rely on Foyle Haven as the only safe and welcoming place for them to go, the removal of that safe haven has really undermined their overall mental health, physical wellbeing and safety.

There’s been some commentary suggesting more and more users are being forced onto the streets in the aftermath of the budget reductions. What’s your view on this?

As there has been a reduction in hours at the service it was inevitable that there would be a visible increase in the number of people drinking or intoxicated on the streets.

Up to July of this year, Foyle Haven had been operating seven days a week for the past six years, now it closes completely on Sunday and opens slightly later in the mornings, from 12pm-7.30pm, Monday to Friday and 12pm-4pm on Saturdays. When people are out on the streets for longer hours, with nowhere to go, they will end up drinking.

Are the statutory authorities doing enough to help and protect people living with addiction issues in Derry?

As mentioned, my interest in addiction and mental health issues stems from problems that I had been seeing in my own community. I think statutory authorities need to do more to help people that are struggling and need to be supportive of efforts being made by non-profit organisations like Depaul’s Foyle Haven and Floating Support services.

How do you achieve a work-life balance, with studies, volunteering? It must be emotionally draining at times.

There were many times I felt challenged but with family, good friends and support from lecturers and fellow students I managed to achieve my degree and graduated a few weeks ago.

There were staff members and service users within Foyle Haven who made my studies a bit easier, they helped support me in my placement and they made it possible for me to attend a Public Health Agency (PHA) meeting about the new guidelines on service user involvement. This was a huge benefit towards my Evidence Based Practice, 6,000 word project. My mentor within Foyle Haven was Brian O’Kane. Harm Reduction project worker. He was a huge support during my academic studies as he had previous knowledge in a lot of the modules I covered.

I can honestly say that I have made friends in what’s now almost three years as a volunteer, among both staff and service users. I have always been welcomed and thanked for every shift I have done in Foyle Haven and Floating Support. When I first started volunteering. I must admit. I did find some of the service users’ situations emotionally draining but I’ve learned to overcome this and I take each shift as it comes, there are days I feel rewarded and days I feel staff or service users have given more to me than I have given them.

Do you think people tend too often to stigmatise or dehumanise people with addiction issues?

Yes, of course they do. I often find myself defending why I volunteer in Foyle Haven.

No-one is immune and I personally haven’t met anyone yet who intentionally set out to abuse alcohol or drugs. Some of the service users within Foyle Haven are the strongest people I know within society.

What do you think of the ongoing failure to put services like Foyle Haven on a sound financial footing?

I think it is somewhat short sighted as the success of services like Foyle Haven are good for the entire community. It provides safety and services for vulnerable people and means that people with complex issues are off of the streets.

If your are interested in volunteering at Foyle Haven contact Depaul‘s Volunteer Co-ordinator Jenny Groves on 02895 215115 or at jenny.groves@depaulcharity.net