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People stepping over street drinkers in doorways, street drinkers being verbally and physically abused by passersby, frightened tourists and angry shopkeepers. This was Derry City 10 years ago, before Foyle Haven opened its doors on 10th December 2001. Derry, which had been at the heart of the conflict in Northern Ireland for so long, was rapidly changing by the late 1990s. But life had not improved for everybody. Many people bore scars from the Troubles – traumatised by experiences of violence. Mental health problems were widespread. As in so many places in Ireland, people in the city had a complex relationship with alcohol. Many lived with alcoholism in their families. But yet, there was a lot of prejudice against street drinkers in the city. By the end of the 1990s, people in Derry were concerned about the growing number of both male and female street drinkers in the city, the growing number of younger drinkers, the health, safety and wellbeing of the drinkers and about public safety and the reputation of the city. But despite these concerns, nobody had attempted to do anything practical about the situation‌.

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But there was one man in Derry, Sergeant Paul Sheehy, who had been taking a special interest in the fortunes of the city’s street drinkers.

Paul Sheehy, who sadly died after a long battle with cancer in 2004, was a community police sergeant in Derry. He was a larger than life character - the ‘people’s policeman.’ Having worked in and managed bars for 14 years before joining the police force, he had a special compassion for street drinkers. After a series of community meetings where people complained about the local ‘winos’ as usual, Paul started to wonder if there was something he could do. He felt sure that arresting drinkers was not the solution, and formulated a plan to help street drinkers on their own terms. His idea was to create a safe place for drinkers where they could come in from the cold, shower and do laundry, eat warm food, and where they would not be judged but treated as individuals, and where their stories would be listened to.


In 2000, Paul approached Sister Catherine Boyle, who was planning to retire from the Derry’s Volunteer Bureau where she had worked for many years. Paul asked Sister Catherine if she had any plans for retirement. When she replied ‘no,’ Paul told her about his idea to open a drop-in centre for the city’s street drinkers, and told her that this would be her plan for her retirement! Sister Catherine Boyle, a Sister of Mercy who had taught in the Creggan and worked with young people for many years in London and Derry, soon became the other half of what the Derry papers describe as ‘a formidable double act.’ She doesn’t wear the habit, and likes to be addressed informally, as ‘Catherine.’ A charismatic woman, with an appetite for adventure, a great sense of humour and a generous heart, Catherine says that working in the Creggan at the start of the Troubles, and as a Samaritan, opened her eyes to the tougher side of life in Derry. Suicide, homelessness, family troubles, generations of unemployment, substance and alcohol misuse were common. As Catherine’s awareness of Derry’s problems grew, she knew she would not retire and together with Paul Sheehy devoted herself to planning a safe place for street drinkers and she soon became the Chairperson of Foyle Haven.

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THE PEOPLE Once the idea was hatched, Paul Sheehy and Sister Catherine began to contact various people who had an interest in the problems that street drinkers faced. Rob Collins and Gerry Burns were members of a local Christian group who brought flasks and sandwiches to street drinkers. They were recruited because they already had a relationship with prospective Service Users. Other people who were approached included Gerry McCloskey, a local publican who also knew the drinkers; Maureen Doherty from the City Centre Initiative; Leo Sharkey, a retired teacher; Sheila Jordan from the Northlands Alcohol Treatment Centre; Pat Ramsey a local SDLP MLA who had a background in youth work, Richard Grant who worked in the Gransha addiction unit; and a variety of people who worked for the Department for Social Development - the original funders of Foyle Haven, and the Housing Executive - Gabrielle Rooney, Pauline Monteith, Brendan Adams, Avril McAlister and Martin Quigg. And so a Management Committee was formed.

The Committee – Back row from left: Rob Collins, Richard Grant, Gerry Burns, Paul Sheehy Seated from left: Gerry McCloskey, Sheila Jordan, Catherine Boyle, Gabrielle Rooney, Maureen Doherty


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When the Committee met, they agreed that Derry’s street drinkers needed a centre of their own. This would not be an easy task. They knew they would face a lot of ‘not in my back yard’ thinking. In a city divided along sectarian lines, they also needed somewhere that was neutral territory. And somewhere that was within walking distance of the Guildhall, so that drinkers would realistically be able to reach the centre. Soon, a premises above an off licence in John Street came to their attention. This raised a few eyebrows, but it fitted all of their other criteria. Planning permission was applied for, and before they knew it, the committee found themselves in possession of a key. In the beginning the John Street premises was just a set of empty, echoing rooms with bare floorboards. Paul Sheehy and Sister Catherine started, in Catherine’s words ‘doing the rounds of the town’ to gather up furniture, and soon became known to the locals as Bonnie and Clyde! Many local businesses contributed, happy that at last something was being done about street drinking.

And so, Foyle Haven opened its doors on 10th December 2001. Initially, the founding committee wondered if anyone would come to Foyle Haven. How would street drinkers feel about a centre run by a policeman and a nun? Their minds were soon put at rest as the centre quickly filled up with people. As the staff welcomed them in, and asked them what they wanted, the street drinkers quickly realised that the centre was for them - it was somewhere that they could feel ownership of.

Two months after Foyle Haven opened, Catherine remembers the centre full of people having lunch and playing pool, the washing machine tumbling away, and thinking that ‘this is the realisation of all our hopes.’

THE WORK OF FOYLE HAVEN THE ETHOS The 2002 Annual Report includes a statement:

‘The Foyle Haven Association accepts street drinkers unconditionally, respects their right to live as they wish and seeks to enhance their health, comfort, self-esteem and human dignity, whether or not they become involved in personal change.’ This vision continues to underline the work of Foyle Haven today. It is a place where people can be themselves, where their problems and needs are understood, and where they are not patronised. Foyle Haven operates a ‘Damp’ Policy, where people are welcome to use their services under the influences of alcohol, but cannot consume alcohol on the premises. But whatever way people present to the centre, they are welcomed.

More than this, Foyle Haven seeks to make a positive difference in street drinkers’ lives. It provides a holistic service to users, whose needs are often complex and overlapping. There is a focus on the health and wellbeing of Service Users. The centre allows them to meet their basic needs, for example with showers, shaves, laundry, friendship and meals. Foyle Haven also links Service Users up with other agencies who help with access to housing, benefits, healthcare, family services, alcohol and drug treatment if it is wanted. Over time, some Service Users may want to become more independent. Some may choose to drink less alcohol. Some even stop drinking and are able to resume their family and working lives. But wherever people are at, they are supported on their own terms. In the words of its Vision Statement, Foyle Haven ‘encourages and supports street drinkers to choose a more independent lifestyle with increased dignity and self-respect.’

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At the time of writing, Foyle Haven has 17 full and part-time staff, and 10 volunteers. It is open 365 days a year. An award from the Big Lottery Fund in 2009 enabled the Haven to extend its opening hours, from 10am-10pm Monday to Friday and 11am-4pm at the weekends. In 2009-10, 407 people used the service and were provided with 370 meals per month during the daytime, and 423 people used the service and were provided with 370 meals per month on evenings and weekends.

Street drinking can lead to intense social isolation, and Foyle Haven tries to support drinkers on a number of social and recreational levels. The common room is the hub of the centre and staff and volunteers are always there to lend a listening ear. Many recreational activities are offered, the most popular of which is karaoke, which takes place every Monday with a packed house.

The social, physical, psychological and emotional condition of Foyle Haven’s Service Users means that it is sometimes extremely difficult for them to articulate their needs and access the services they are entitled to. So Foyle Haven focuses on a variety of areas of support:




Health problems are both a key problem and a low priority for street drinkers. Service Users often ignore physical and mental health conditions, which can quickly deteriorate. Foyle Haven tries to incorporate early interventions and support by accompanying clients to health appointments (up to 18 a month in 2009-10), acting as advocates for them, explaining medical jargon and medication regimes. Over time, Service Users are encouraged and supported to take an active role in their own health care. Currently, one post is funded by the Public Health Agency’s Western Drug and Alcohol Co-Ordination Team (WDACT).

Two floating support posts at Foyle Haven are currently funded by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. Up to 70 visits were made per month in 2009-10, making housing applications, intervening in crises and ensuring Service Users are managing in their tenancies.

Art therapy and singalongs are extremely popular with Service Users at Foyle Haven. The Men’s Action Network helps organise a programme of activities and complimentary therapies, from healthy eating to anger management. There are currently plans to extend gardening activities, due to popular demand.

EDUCATION A variety of courses are offered at Foyle Haven, from I.T. to ‘Eat Well to be Well’ where Service Users are given classes in how to prepare healthy food for themselves. When Service Users have been sober for a year they are able to work as “helpers” at Foyle Haven, and as full volunteers after 2 years. Many have taken this up, and others are encouraged to volunteer elsewhere. Not only does this give encouragement to current street drinkers, it also provides a channel for Service Users to develop and progress in their lives.

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RECENT DEVELOPMENT By 2008, as the scale and complexity of Foyle Haven’s work expanded, the Board felt that it needed a thorough review of governance and organisational structures. They needed to find new people to augment the diminishing committee and to ensure that it was more operationally effective. Stella Burnside, retired Chief Executive of Altnagelvin Hospital Trust and other senior Health Board posts came to help in the kitchen, but was soon persuaded to join the Board. Aine Abbott, a practising G.P. already involved with Derry Well Woman and Foyle Hospice came and brought her husband, Kevin, an ‘A’ level teacher of ICT, Physics and Maths. Linda Watson, a dedicated and experienced community worker was head hunted by Pat Ramsey. Maureen Hetherington, with 15 years involvement in Community Relations, brought valuable facilitation and mediation skills and uplifted morale when the going got tough.

Foyle Haven works closely with other agencies. Since opening, it has been and continues to be funded by the Department of Social Development (through ‘Supporting People’), the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, the Western Health and Social Service Board (through WDACT) and the PSNI.

A large part of Foyle Haven’s work is connecting their Service Users up with other agencies. Staff do lots of sign posting and referrals. For example Foyle Haven work closely with HURT, a drug and alcohol service, and ZEST, a suicide prevention service, referring Service Users for counselling if they want it. Other organisations they have a close relationship with include the Traveller’s Support Group, Northlands, the Treatment Unit at Gransha and a variety of mental health organisations.

Jim Roddy, Manager of the City Centre Initiative, is in daily communication with the City Councillors, the Civic Alcohol Forum and the commercial and tourism sectors so was an invaluable mentor. Sam Young, a Community Sergeant, following in the footsteps of the late Paul Sheehy, is familiar with the local street culture and known by name to most of the Service Users. He keeps intact the historical and essential close liaison with the PSNI. Finally the services of a retired Director from the Health and Personal Social Services, an ex-colleague of Stella’s (Burnside) were obtained. Tom Melaugh brought his organisational development skills to bear and oversaw a thorough review and update of Foyle Haven’s governance and organisational structures. The new members brought a richness of skills, ideas, professionalism and knowledge to the remaining veterans of 2001. This ‘facelift’ brought vigour and confidence to the Board and was especially timely. With Foyle Haven’s increasing success in winning external funding by the late 2000’s, and the subsequent extension of staff numbers and opening hours, it was essential that its strategic and operational aims were fit for purpose. The first big success was in 2009, when Foyle Haven won substantial funding of nearly £1 million from the Big Lottery Fund, with a project called ‘Safe From Harm.’ This was a 5 year grant to extend the opening hours to evenings and weekends. In 2011, they were awarded a Glaxo SmithKline IMPACT Award on the basis of their work in the health sphere. Foyle Haven was able to show that the ‘Safe From Harm’ scheme was making a positive impact on health, as PSNI figures showed that since they extended their opening hours, there had been a 50% reduction in A&E admissions amongst their Service Users. And crime statistics in the John Street area had been so greatly reduced that PSNI planned CCTV cameras were no longer needed. The vast majority of the crimes had been assaults against street drinkers.

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Liam has been drinking for 20 years. He says he is a ‘nightmare’ when he is drinking. He has taken and dealt class A drugs, been in and out of prison and has been in his words, ‘wild,’ burning down houses and doing what he had to do to get a drink. Liam talks about how difficult life is on the streets, where people abuse you on a daily basis.

Annie comes from the Republic of Ireland originally, where she took heroin for many years. When she moved to Derry, she drank instead and was a well-known figure on the city’s streets. It was when she was in prison, for alcohol-related activities, that she a got a letter from her child saying that they wanted to get in contact. This event changed the course of Annie’s life, and she has now been sober for 4 years.

Sean is relatively new to Foyle Haven. He has been coming almost every day for a year. Sean struggles with a number of mental and physical health issues, made worse by an accident that left him unable to work. He began to drink heavily after the accident, and as a result his marriage broke up, so he drank even more. One of the people Sean used to drink with was James McCallion - Jimbo - who has been a member of staff at Foyle Haven since 2002. As a former street drinker himself, Jimbo encouraged Sean to come to the centre. Sean says that coming to Foyle Haven gives him something to look forward to and thinks that his life would be a lot worse without it. He says, ‘it makes all the difference that some of the staff and volunteers have been drinkers themselves. They know where you are coming from and it gives you hope for your own life.’

Liam comes to Foyle Haven nearly every day. He says, ‘I’d be lost without this place. All my friends have deserted me. But I can still come here and people will understand.’

Annie still comes to Foyle Haven regularly, as she has done for the last 9 years. At the beginning, she was regularly barred for her behaviour. But Annie says that the staff at Foyle Haven did not give up on her. They let her back in and continued to work with her, taking her to regular appointments with Health and Social Service Workers, and helping her set up meetings with her child. Annie says ‘Foyle Haven saved my life. They had faith in me when I didn’t have faith in myself.’ Annie is now looking at volunteering opportunities, and is exploring the idea of setting up a kitchen garden in Foyle Haven. She now meets her child every week, to talk or to cook a curry.

JOHN* John* used to work as a community artist and especially loved working with children. John struggles with mental health issues, and found the Bloody Sunday Tribunal extremely difficult. It brought up old memories and John began to drink heavily and eventually broke down. He stopped working. John says drinking is a form of ‘self-medication’ for him. Soon, John says, drinking leads to depression and loneliness, which is how he felt when he first came to Foyle Haven. John says that Foyle Haven ‘forces you to break the cycle’ and ‘allows you to be your own person.’ Without the support of Foyle Haven, John says he would now be ‘brown bread [dead].’

But John’s creativity has begun to reemerge. He was part of a group that had the idea of creating a mural with a tree made of driftwood. The leaves of the tree were handprints of the Haven’s Service Users. John maintains that drinkers ‘are individuals, they don’t like to conform. The tree recognises people as individuals.’ Now John says that he is considering starting to work as a community artist again – with ‘small steps and realistic goals.’ The wall, however, has now become a memorial to Service Users who have passed away. Three hands are now gone.

*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

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Music is also an important part of life at Foyle Haven. Darren ‘Dougal’ McPartland has worked with Foyle Haven for 6 years, first as a Project Worker and as General Manager since 2006. Dougal is a keen musician, and is often to be found leading singalongs in the common room. He says ‘music is a powerful force. It takes your mind off your troubles, it brings people together and it’s therapeutic as well.’ One of Dougal’s favourite memories is working on the ‘John Street Blues’ CD in 2008. ‘John Street Blues’ is a collaboration between Belfast singer-songwriter Bap Kennedy and members of Foyle Haven. Most of the songs were written by street drinkers, and chronicle the highs and lows of life on the street, in Dougal’s words, ‘the effect of alcoholism and homelessness, the chill of the street at night, the risk of being robbed or assaulted when sleeping rough.’

Derry has a reputation as a place where art and culture thrive. And this creativity is reflected throughout Foyle Haven. One Service User, who has been drinking for nearly 30 years, has received a lot of attention in recent years for his poetry. ‘A Christmas Wish’ was written for his mother. His mother was used to seeing stories about her son in the local paper for all the wrong reasons. And he wanted to give her something to smile about instead.

‘A Christmas Wish’ Every time in the local papers. This man had his fame It was drunk and disorderly, out of the game In his heart forever, I am trapped With a disease I suffer from, read the stats I was asked to write a few words They came from my heart Just to say mammy I still love you So with the grace of God The next time I’m in the paper It will be a poem for you Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year Love Your Big Son



Hugh Kennedy is a Derry City Ranger working with the City Centre Initiative. The Rangers are the eyes, ears and problem solvers of the city. Before this, Hugh worked in the fire department for 30 years. So if anyone knows Derry, it’s Hugh. He says, ‘the need in this city is exceptional.’ He tells stories of Derry in the 1980s and 1990s, where people would at best ignore and at worst attack the city’s street drinkers. He recalls how life in the city centre was marked by tensions between tourists, shopkeepers, shoppers and drinkers. Hugh says, ‘Foyle Haven isn’t an easy organisation to support, or to be seen to support - unless you’ve seen the streets.’ He says that ‘Foyle Haven has led to a massive improvement in the city centre. The changes I’ve seen have been dramatic.’ One or two street drinkers, well-known local characters, still drink in the city centre. But mostly, drinkers now prefer to congregate near Foyle Haven, in a car park, or by the bridges. Hugh compares this to going out for a swim - ‘you feel much more comfortable when you know there is a lifebelt nearby.’ Of course, not everybody is happy. Some traders near Foyle Haven complain about the number of street drinkers who now congregate in their area, with all the commotion this sometimes entails. But others understand that projects like Foyle Haven must take place in somebody’s back yard. And most are delighted with the transformation that has taken place in the city. For example, there is a new Public Realm Scheme at Derry’s Guildhall, and initially there was concern that it would be overtaken by street drinkers. But, because the drinkers are now drawn to the safety and warmth of Foyle Haven, this has not happened. Hugh feels that there is a growing need for services like Foyle Haven. This is partly because of the growth in drinking amongst teenagers - Hugh calls them ‘trainee street drinkers,’ not yet alcoholics, but on their way. And partly because of changes in society. Where once families and the community played a large role in reaching out to street drinkers, increasingly this job is now left up to organisations such as Foyle Haven.

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Foyle Haven’s merger in March 2011 with Depaul Ireland, which specialises in work with street drinkers in Dublin and Belfast, is a result of a meeting of minds at Derry’s City Hotel. Sister Catherine describes meeting a delegation from Depaul Ireland - Kerry Anthony, CEO, Aoife Watters, Director of Finance and Board Member, Sister Nuala Kelly - at a conference about the future of the Third Sector in 2010. It wasn’t long before Catherine realised that Foyle Haven and Depaul Ireland shared a similar passion for working with street drinkers with complex needs. Catherine invited Kerry and Sister Nuala to visit the next month, and one coffee turned into many as they talked for hours in the City Hotel, each identifying with the ethos, values and work of the other. With the economic turmoil of the last few years, the voluntary and community sector is experiencing serious challenges. Funding is more difficult to access, standalone projects are on increasingly insecure ground and organisations are having to think more about how they might work together. Catherine knew that with the Big Lottery Fund award in 2009, and the doubling of its staff, Foyle Haven was growing fast and needed to professionalise even further. After visiting Depaul’s Stella Maris project in Belfast, a wet hostel for street drinkers, she became convinced that Depaul Ireland was an organisation that Foyle Haven could work well with. In Catherine’s words, ‘I trusted that the street drinkers, who were our priority, would also be the people who are Depaul’s priority.’ Foyle Haven became part of Depaul Ireland on 31st March 2011. This has been welcomed within the wider sector. Due to the foresight of Sister Catherine and the Board of Foyle Haven the future of the Service is secure and the commitment to some of the most vulnerable within Derry remains.


Life for street drinkers in Derry has been improved significantly as a result of Foyle Haven’s work. But, in 2011, there is more need than ever for their services. When Foyle Haven opened in 2001, most people were not able to afford to buy much alcohol on a daily basis. But now, with the ready availability of cheap alcohol in the supermarkets, people are drinking more than ever before. The words of John McCormick, of the Northlands Centre, are regularly repeated in Foyle Haven’s literature: ‘[Street drinkers] are a product and reflection of our society: we create the society that we have. None of us can wash our hands of it.’ This gets to the heart of the vision of both Foyle Haven and Depaul Ireland. Combining forces in 2011 provides an opportunity to build a service that is stronger than ever – a service that continues to meet the needs of street drinkers, on their own terms, as equal members of our society.

THANKS Thanks go to the Staff, Volunteers, Service Users, Board of Management and Supporters of Foyle Haven for their contributions to this publication. Written by Dr. Claire Mitchell Photography by Tim Millen Design by Hurson

PAUL SHEEHY Foyle Haven exists today because of the commitment of Paul Sheehy and Sister Catherine Boyle who 10 years ago took the initiative to support those most excluded in Derry. Sadly Paul is no longer with us but his work and humanity carries on through those working and volunteering in the centre to this day.

‘God bless him, he’s up with the Lord and I’m sorry for the Lord because Paul will be sizing him up and he will be saying ‘I wonder what we can get him to do for us.’ Sister Catherine Boyle, on Sgt. Paul Sheehy’s passing in 2004.

Dublin Office / 18 Nicholas Street, Dublin 8 00353 1 453 7111 / T / E / W Belfast Office / 38 University Street, Belfast BT7 1FZ 0044 28 90 202 245 / T / E / W

History of Foyle Haven  

Foyle Haven was established in 2001 by a group of committed people from the local community who wanted to provide support to local street dr...

History of Foyle Haven  

Foyle Haven was established in 2001 by a group of committed people from the local community who wanted to provide support to local street dr...