View from the coalface

keith stevenson

The work can be demanding and draining – so why do it? Keith Stevenson shares the highs and lows of working at the Mulberry Community Project

I have had two conversations today with ex-residents of Mulberry who left us because they were seeking something other than what we offered. One wanted to drink, and because we are abstinent based he could not do his drinking within our project. The other wanted to live with his boyfriend who was a drinker, and again he could not do that while being with us. Today I talked with two people who were both in tears, both drinking copious amounts of alcohol and both at the end of their tether. As they are in very different parts of the country to where we are, personal contact is impossible but sometimes, just someone on the end of a phone helps. This ‘coalface’ work can be extremely demanding and can leave you exhausted by the end of the day. So why does anyone do it?

Let’s rewind nearly five years to when I first opened a recovery house in Blackpool under the charity Mulberry Community Project. I opened it after seeing so many people going through treatment and trying to get out of the chaos that is addiction. It can involve a lot of money, time and thought to take the road to recovery. It may happen after some stabilisation on a script, or it may have been a ‘lightbulb’ moment; a realisation that changing one’s life is the only way forward. The problem was there was very little, if any, post-treatment support for the individual beyond the 12-step approach – which, alongside other recovery programmes such as SMART, work for many people around the world.

But this approach could not cover other needs such as housing, education and volunteering and I saw the need to provide safe secure housing with a support package where relapse and addiction could be explored.

I did lots of research while working for Inward House, an excellent charity in Lancashire that encouraged me to look into this. I talked to the commissioner for services in Blackpool and, being the very forward-thinking man he was, he encouraged us to tie treatment and recovery together as the benefits are so obvious. Others helped greatly, such as The Basement Project on the other side of the Pennines, and people such as Cormac Russell whose ABCD talk convinced me that I was on the right track.

Nearly five years and eight houses later we are helping people find their recovery. Two people have left the project in the last three weeks, and between them they have got four years recovery time and are looking forward to rich, fulfilling lives. Both have flats of their own, are in employment, and are enjoying an abstinence-based life. We look around and see other projects getting lots of money, and others getting awards, yet we just carry on doing what we are doing.

Would we have liked the money? Yes of course, as it would have meant that we could have helped more people. But Mulberry started with £150 in the bank and a lot of faith. What we like most is seeing people leaving our project and going into independent living, being abstinent and holding fulltime work. That is a true reward.

Not everything is plain sailing and we do have our problems – but that’s the nature of the beast. When I have to take phone calls from people I have worked with and they sound really bad and suicidal, it breaks your heart. We have had two deaths in the project in five years and they bring home just how important what we do actually is. Life on the ‘coalface’ is both rewarding and painful – often at the same time – but we will never give up, as we are told that we literally save lives.

Keith Stevenson is founder and CEO of the Mulberry Community Project,