A radical new approach to helping rough sleepers combat alcohol addiction was officially opened in London yesterday, 13 May 2008.
The Alcohol Reduction Unit, a five-bed residential centre in King's Cross, run by St Mungo's homeless charity, is the first of its kind in the capital. It aims to stabilise residents' alcohol consumption through a mix of group work, complementary therapies and structured activities. St Mungo's regional director David Devoy said: "Using methods ranging from reflexology to visits to the London Eye, the ARU helps homeless people reduce or stabilise their alcohol intake - acting as a stepping stone to further detox and rehabilitation therapies.
Since November 2007, we've had 11 residents at the ARU, with a majority progressing to further detox, rehab or abstinence. "This is an exceptional beginning, with preliminary feedback showing a high percentage of residents, who previously slept rough and drank heavily, are not only going on to further treatment but are also staying well." The launch of the project marked the culmination of more than ten years' hard work by Father Barry Carpenter, a Catholic priest who is now retired.
Around 1990 Cardinal Hume appointed him as Westminster Diocese's chaplain to the homeless. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Fr Barry ministered to hundreds of people living on the streets of London - all too often organising the funerals of those who died overnight. At one point more than 400 homeless people were living in makeshift tents and shelters in Lincoln's Inn Fields - a small park surrounded by offices of some of the richest legal firms in the country.
"Many of the homeless people I met had severe alcohol problems" Fr Barry said. "In the winter they would drink partly just to keep warm."
What shocked Fr Barry was the fact that there was no treatment available to help homeless people deal with their addictions. He said: "The only thing that would happen was that if someone really got noisy or aggressive the police would put them in the cells overnight. The next day they'd be back on the street."
Together with Police Chief Superintendent Bill Ransome, Richard Griffiths, senior partner in Harvey Cass legal firm, the late Danny Levine, writer Ben Joliffe, and others, Fr Barry set up a charity to raise funds for a centre to help homeless alcoholics.
"It was quite an uphill struggle to begin with" Fr Barry said. "Many people were just not interested or really didn't want something like this near them." But in the end, the trustees raised nearly one million pounds, he said - and the final result is better than they could have hoped for. Richard Griffiths said: "Initially we envisaged a place that could offer a two week stay. Here people will be able to stay for up to six months and receive ongoing support after that." Fr Barry added: "Its a real sign of the times that in 1991 there were 400 people sleeping rough in Lincolns Inn Fields alone.
Last month the official count found just four people sleeping rough on the streets of Camden. The problem hasn't gone away but it has been greatly reduced. I am very pleased to see this centre opened." St Mungo's is London's largest charity for homeless people. It emergency help and run more than 100 projects that house and support homeless people's recovery and prevent rough sleeping. For more information see: www.mungos.org