Havilah Project celebrates 10 years of helping people with addictions

The Courier published this fantastic story to mark the 10th anniversary of the Havilah Project in Arbroath which helps people struggling with addictions. Written by Courier reporter Michael Alexander the story's original headline was: Arbroath project refuses to write off the ‘Trainspotting generation’ of drug addicts. We republish the story here with kind permission of The Courier.

Rev Martin Fair (right) with volunteer Tracey McLeod
Rev Martin Fair (right) with volunteer Tracey McLeod

When official statistics published last week revealed drugs deaths in Scotland were at a record high, it was described as a national tragedy.

A total of 706 people died as a result of abuse in 2015, according to a report by the National Records of Scotland. That’s 15% higher than 2014 and 16% higher than the year before that.

And while the highest concentrations of addicts are in the cities, small-town Scotland is far from immune. It is a fact those behind the Church of Scotland-affiliated Havilah support project in Arbroath know all too well.

Since setting up a drop-in centre for addicts 10 years ago this week, St Andrew’s Church minister Martin Fair reckons his team of volunteers must have buried “around a dozen” of the project’s regular attendees.

Service user John Ohren having a game of pool at the Havilah Project in Arbroath
Service user John Ohren having a game of pool at the Havilah Project in Arbroath

Bereavement

And while it would be easy to write off each one as just another drug death statistic, for the dedicated volunteers, every one of them feels like “a family bereavement”.

Glasgow-born Martin, 52, who has been minister at St Andrew’s for almost 25 years, explains: “Havilah began in 2006 in response to the desire some of our number had to reach out in love to the many in our community who, for whatever reason, often find themselves excluded, isolated and unloved.

“Originally, we opened on a Monday morning for two hours serving tea and toast and offering a listening ear.

“This quickly moved on to us being open three hours a day, five days a week, as we are now, offering a non-judgmental haven for some of the most marginalised people in our society.”

Based at Community Spirit – a St Andrew’s venture in the middle of the town’s Fisheracre shops, Havilah offers free tea, coffee, biscuits and soup lunches between noon and 3pm.

When The Courier visited, it quickly became clear how popular it is, with a queue of men and women – mainly addicts or former addicts in their thirties or forties – waiting eagerly.

Once inside the bright premises, there were hugs for the staff and a real sense of joy as some of the addicts settled down with a coffee for a blether, or a game of pool.

When the project was first set up, numbers were low.

By the end of 2007, however, there had been something of a breakthrough and the team was welcoming 12-16 men and women on a regular basis, leading them to open the current base.

Now, amid the overdose tragedies, it can cite examples of people who went on to turn their lives around and the aim is for every single person who walks through the door to recover.

It works with people such as Angus Council and last year Havilah won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.

The council provides a significant portion of the annual £60,000 costs, with much of the remainder funded by the Church of Scotland Go For It fund.

However, while the Christian ethos underpins everything volunteers do – Havilah is the name of an abundant area of land, mentioned in the book of Genesis – Martin insists that religion is never forced on anyone.

Rev Martin Fair
Rev Martin Fair

Camaraderie

“For a lot of those coming here it gives them some kind of routine in their lives and some camaraderie,” he says.

“Other than coming here, there’s no reason to get up, nowhere to go other than to score whatever it is for that day.

“But what is most important of all is that they are not judged. And that is key.

“Everywhere these guys go on the streets, they are treated as and spoken to as something you’ve stood on. Here, that never happens. They are treated as normal. There is compassion.”

Martin describes Tracey McLeod, her husband Jim and the other helpers as remarkable human beings who “always go that extra mile.”

But it can be hard work – and there have to be lines in the sand about acceptable behaviour.

Martin adds:“These guys, when they come in will lie to you, they’ll steal from you, they’ll cheat. They’ll promise you the Earth.

“And even when they make great strides forward they’ll fall back and end up where they were.

“But Tracey and the team never give up.

“That compassion gets to these guys. They are hard-nosed. Life has made them hard.

“We never push religious faith on them. When they have been coming for a wee while, they’ll say ‘how come you people are nice to us?’

“And at that point maybe Tracey will say ‘it’s our Christian faith – we don’t believe in writing people off’.

“Often, the guys will laugh that off and say ‘don’t try that church stuff on me’. But they’ll keep coming, because we’re not bashing them.

“The guys also start to police the place themselves. There’s no swearing here. They always say please and thank you when getting tea. What wins is Christian faith in practice.”

A spokesman for Angus Council said the team was providing a valuable public service.

“The drop-in centre gives the offer of food, friendship and advice that can help to break the destructive cycle of addiction,” they said.

“We, in turn, are pleased to provide them with funding and other support.”

Charlie Smith

A reformed Dundee alcoholic and heroin user, Charlie is brutally honest about what Arbroath’s Havilah project has done for him.

“This place saved my life,” he says. “I’d have been dead years ago if it wasn’t for Tracey and everybody that helps me here.”

Originally from St Mary’s, Charlie, 47, was put into care at the age of six months because his parents couldn’t cope.

An alcoholic in the city for 20 years, he became hooked on heroin when he moved to Arbroath from Dundee seven years ago.

As a drug addict for four years, he and his partner, who he met at a rehab session, would shoplift prolifically to feed their £90 a day drug habit.

He became a regular in court. Sentenced to “plenty of fines and community service”, he retains pride that he was never sent to jail.

However, Charlie, who has now been clean for three years, says his wake-up call came the day his criminal justice worker predicted she’d find him dead on his couch one day.

“You have to get it right up here,” he says tapping his temple. “If you don’t want to come off you never will.”

Charlie, who now works in a recycling job at Abbey Fruits, recalls that at one point he was banned from every shop in Arbroath.

So when he came off drugs, and determined to turn his life around for good, he wrote letters to the managers of every shop in the town pleading with them to let him in again.

“The only one that got back to me was Morrisons – so I now shop there,” he says.

Charlie says the most important thing about Havilah is “they don’t judge you”, allowing clients to build up “complete trust” with the volunteers.

However, he still worries about the wider drugs problems in Arbroath and towns like it.

“There’s absolutely nothing for people to do – especially if you are on the ‘broo’ and someone comes along one day and says ‘try this’ and before you know, you are hooked.”

John Ohren

John is proving to be a rather nifty pool player – even with only one leg.

The 30-year-old from Arbroath is still coming to terms with the amputation of his right leg in May due to drug abuse.

“I injected into my leg and it got an infection in it, “he explains. “I was delirious for a couple of days and was told it could spread to my kidneys.

“The doctors at Ninewells did a brilliant job taking my leg off. But I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet that I’ve lost it.”

John has been visiting the project for most of its existence. He first got into drugs in 2004, citing the trigger as a period when the authorities stopped him from seeing his son, among other issues at the time.

He has been in and out of rehab ever since, spending various periods clean.

John hopes to get a prosthetic limb fitted at some point but adds, with a laugh: “I’m taking life one step at a time.

“I started coming in here because it gave me somewhere to go to get out the house. They didn’t judge me and was a nice place to go,” he adds.

“Coming here is my one steady thing.”

Toni Simpson

Toni, who turns 27 tomorrow, is visibly shaking when I’m introduced to her.

It’s not nerves but the effects of long term heroin addiction and the methadone she is taking as a substitute.

Born and raised in Arbroath, Toni says she came from a “good family”.

However, she made “one mistake” when she was 17 and became hooked on the drug.

“I think it was just the people I was around,”she says, explaining how she dropped out of a hairdressing course at Angus College.

“I started smoking it. That led to injecting and I became hooked. That was it. If I could speak to my 17-year-old self I would say ‘Don’t do it. Just don’t do it…”.

Toni fed her “at least £10 per day” habit through shoplifting and spent time on remand at Cornton Vale.

Ironically, she believes jail was a positive step as it gave her a taste of structure.

“Life on the outside was that chaotic, the jail was structured even for that small amount of time,” she says.

She has been visiting the Havilah project most days for seven years.Most importantly it gives her “something to go out to do,” she explains.

“I also like it because no one judges you. Everyone in here is welcoming and friendly to everyone.”