Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Homelessness is where the heart is

Bernie Coleman with minister Margaret Ritchie

A homeless hostel that allows residents to drink alcohol in moderation caused controversy when it opened in Belfast three years ago, but Jane Hardy was impressed when she visited the refuge

It’s the time of year when homelessness seems particularly poignant. Yet although there was no room at the inn in Bethlehem, the old Stella Maris seamen’s hostel in Garmoyle Street, near the Belfast docks, has been doing sterling work in encouraging alcoholics off the streets into what they call a ‘low-threshold and harm-reduction project’.

To the 23 residents, it is, as the locum worker Noreen told me, more simply “home”.

Two of the longest serving residents, Bernie and Joe Coleman, who have lived at Stella Maris for three years, are good examples of how a ‘wet’ hostel can help people with drink problems reduce intake and sort out their lives.

The story of the couple from west Belfast — Ballymurphy as Joe tells me with pride and a bit of a cough — is also indicative of how easy it is to slip through the net.

They met because they lived in the same neighbourhood. Joe remembers: “She lived the next road down and was the girl next door, or something like that anyway.” Bernie, a youthful 48, and Joe, (“hem, hem, 59”) were married 25 years ago on June 8. He was a steel fixer, and worked on building sites “wherever the work was”, earning a good wage.

Later on, Joe was employed by Belfast Parks and Cemeteries as a tree surgeon. Bernie was a cook, eventually working in places such as the Europa Hotel and the old Copper Griddle in the city’s High Street.

The Colemans have seven children, ranging in age from 32 to 16, and nine grandchildren. The family lived in social housing in New Lodge, but a few years ago, they were evicted because their teenagers were arguing and generally causing a bit of ‘aggro’. Somehow, it’s more understandable when you learn that the Colemans, all seven of them — two had left home by then — occupied a two-bedroomed house.

Bernie recalls: “We had to have two beds downstairs, and although it was only meant to be a temporary home, for two months, we stayed there over two years.”

After they lost their home, the couple had to split. Joe went to stay with a friend, and Bernie and three daughters found accommodation at a hostel on the Falls Road. “We had to leave the hostel during the day. We got out at 9.45am, and I would spend the day sitting in the Welcome Centre.” At the time, Bernie was using a Zimmer frame, having broken her hip.

Of course, the drink was another problem. At his nadir, Joe was putting away a bottle and a half of cider a day — and we’re talking three litre bottles of Blackthorns. Bernie also drank cider which she feels “ruined my stomach”. As a result of her drinking, she is seeing the “liver doctor” and has spent some time in hospital over the past three years.

At Stella Maris, staff are encouraging Bernie to reduce her alcoholic intake, and maybe switch to the odd glass |of wine. When she |visits her daughter Suzanne, to whom she is very close, she tells me that she doesn’t touch a drink. “Well, the grandchildren are there ...”

Mr and Mrs Coleman are both grateful beyond measure to the dedicated staff at Stella Maris, and clearly get on very well with the man who started up the hostel, Donald Sharkey. He is now head of operations for the Depaul Trust which runs the hostel. A former priest, he conducts memorial services in the hostel when a resident dies. A fortnight before my visit, a popular resident, Peter O’Hare, passed away, and ten of the Stella Maris inhabitants attended his funeral. They also had their own service.

Bernie and Joe used former Father Sharkey’s services when they renewed their wedding vows in October last year. “We did it because it’s just a nice thing”, notes Bernie, smiling. She dressed up, had a bouquet with roses and carnations, and there was a small party afterwards.

Halfway through our chat, a man who sounded as if he’d had a bit more than the recommended maximum intake of one drink per hour broke into a lovely version of Danny Boy, in a rich baritone, only spoilt when he suddenly shouted ‘Shut the f*** up’ to nobody in particular. Bernie and Joe smiled tolerantly. There is a camaraderie here, and as Donald Sharkey points out, not only do key workers and other staff, such as the art and music teacher Caroline Jeffries, help residents turn things around, the people living in Garmoyle Street also support each other.

They don’t automatically exchange personal histories, however; asking about the background of one resident, I got the mild reproof, “We don’t go into personal histories, that’s private.”

But Bernie and Joe, who are devoted parents to Mary (32, Bernie’s stepdaughter), Joseph (30), married and a chef, Suzanne (24) who lives with her partner and looks after their baby, Bernadette (22), also with a partner and children, Michael (21), “a wee odd-job man”, James (20), now on a training scheme, and Patrick (16) who is still at school, see a lot of their large family. Their offspring come regularly to the interview room with its ‘No Alcohol in the Interview Room’ sign on the door.

The couple have nine grandchildren, too, and on Christmas Day they went to their second youngest daughter, Suzanne. Bernie says she wondered whether she could go to one of children’s homes, as the others might be offended, but most of her family ended up at Suzanne’s anyway, so there was no problem. Before the family Christmas dinner, the Colemans spent a few hours with their friends at the hostel. They all received gifts from the hostel, ranging from toiletries to DVDs and vouchers.

A typical day at Stella Maris begins around 7am. The first meal of the day is a self-service ‘breakfast club’, with boiled eggs, cereal and toast. The hostel nurse Susan comes in twice a week from 11am to 3pm. She checks people are taking their medication, and takes time to have a word with everybody. Bernie gives her a glowing reference: “If she finds out you’re not well, she’ll drive you to the doctor or hospital herself.”

Lunch is from noon to 1.30pm and might include soup and sandwiches or pasta or stir-fries. Good

nutrition is an important part of the regime. Joe enthuses about the real Ulster fry on Saturdays, “with potato farls”. Bernie says regretfully that she used to be a spice girl, liking “chillis and all that”, but that her system can’t cope any more.

In the afternoon, there are activities, including a regular music session and art class. As Donald says, “the residents don’t sit around drinking all day, they do a lot”. Bernie showed me a sponge painting she’d done under Caroline’s tutelage.

It was vibrant, expressive and used strong colours, and was exhibited a couple of years back at the Common Grounds cafe.

She completed it with her friend Dolores, who has since left Stella Maris, stopped drinking, and has gone to live with her partner.

Although Bernie would eventually like her own place again, Joe would be content to stay in the hostel. You can see why.

The hostel is partly funded by money residents get from the NI Housing Executive and the government’s Supporting People grant. But the Depaul Trust relies on donations to provide extras.

After visiting Stella Maris, I happened to be in Fountain Street doing some shopping, and outside a charity shop there were two people begging.

The woman was making miaowing noises and giggling while not quite managing to hold out her paper cup. There is a great need for this hostel, and more like it.

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