Issue 113 of Bido Lito! is out now. Sign up as a member to get the issue delivered to your door.
When Damien John Kelly House, an abstinence-led residential recovery centre, was established in Wavertree in 2019, it was met with scorn and disapproval from local residents. Two years on, the house is a core part of the Wavertree community, offering those in recovery a chance to reconnect with society through a programme of arts, creativity and sport. Paul Fitzgerald speaks to its residents and those behind the house about its continuing journey.
“We’re all fuming here. There’s a school over the road from it, there’s a nursery round the back of it. You’re going to have druggies robbing and making more crime for the area.”
“We feel like every garbage comes to Wavertree.”
“It’s the last straw that broke the camel’s back.”
In a 2019 article curiously headlined ‘An abandoned pub, a drug rehab row and the long decline of one of most famous streets’, the Liverpool Echo spoke to business owners in the Wavertree area following ferocious local outcry at the suggestion that a residential centre for recovering addicts could be granted planning permission at the old police station on Wavertree High Street. At one particularly ill-tempered planning meeting, objectors railed against representatives of what is now Damien John Kelly House, with shouts of “shame” and “disgrace”. One dissenter going as far as telling them to “Burn in hell”.
When the Liverpool Watch Committee declared Wavertree to be a safe place for policemen to live in the late 1800s, the decision was made to close the old lock-up on the village green and build a new station on the high street. A warm office for the officers and a good amount of hard brick cells for the regulars. Short-term stays for long-term guests. And in just a two-mile stretch containing more than 30 pubs, regular guests were in plentiful supply. Those who lived in the neat terraced streets of Wavertree were a community of thousands, the great majority of them railworkers. The work was hard and the living wasn’t easy, but people supported each other in whatever way they could. Such was, and is, working-class life in Liverpool.
It’s understandable to see why the Wavertree residents of today were originally in such objection to the idea of recovering addicts moving into the area. They were right. Their area has declined. Pubs and shops have closed, there’s very little footfall compared to even recent times, and local businesses were already struggling long before Coronavirus came to stay. The community felt fractured, lost to the wealth of investment in the city centre; like so many across the city, they felt abandoned.
On top of this, and as with so many of us, they didn’t understand what happens to addicts in recovery, or even what the word means in the context of addiction. Through fear, ignorance and the stigma still attached to addiction (or more likely through a heady combination of all three), they perceived the opening of Damien John Kelly House to be a further threat to their weakening sense of community. What they didn’t perceive, certainly at that time, was that it could become a valuable asset, something to help grow the community from within and create new opportunities for all.
Damien John Kelly House is an abstinence-led residential recovery centre. The residents are there because they want to be. Some, but not all, have completed a 12-week rehabilitation, but it’s not a condition of acceptance. They’re not in active addiction, but are seeking the next stage: recovery. If their recovery is robust and reliable, if they’re familiar with mutual aid groups and the personal work they need to do, they can be welcomed into the programme.
Like the concept of community, recovery is not an end-game or destination, more an ongoing process, fluctuating and growing at each turn. Recovery is reconnection; with yourself, with family, community and society. It is based on honesty, on acceptance and willing. Especially willing. Recovery can only begin with willing, just as addiction begins with trauma. There being no such thing as a ‘gateway drug’; trauma, all too often, is the true gateway to addiction. Recovery never really ends.
To look at the old police station today, you wouldn’t know it’s current use. There are no signs, no banners. No visible celebration of their purpose. But then, we don’t generally put signs on our homes to proclaim who we are and what we do. And Damien John Kelly House is, first and foremost, a home. People live their lives there in ways they could have never imagined when in the deepest recesses of addiction and life had left them broken. They thrive and flourish there. (When I left after one of my visits for this article, I noticed the motto in Latin on the frontage of Wavertree Town Hall: ‘Sub Umba Floresco’ which translates as ‘I Flourish in The Shade’).
Damien John Kelly, who the house is named after, was a catalyst. He brought people together. As an integral part in The Brink – Britain’s first dry bar – Damien instilled a sense of hope in people who, like he had done, were turning their lives around. He was a powerful force for change in people, an example and an inspiration.
PJ Smith, Recovery Lead at the house, was just one of the many people who turned his life around with the support, guidance, love and encouragement of Damien.
Writing of his friend and mentor in a previous issue of Bido Lito! he noted how he gave people “the impetus to change their own lives. Instilling hope in people… He didn’t change his life by magic. He faced himself, head-on. Sheer courage and willingness. He always used to say, ‘If I can do it, anyone can’. He’s right, y’know? Hope rather than despair.”
This community is just a fraction of the huge legacy Damien Kelly left when he died suddenly and tragically in his sleep in 2019. In many ways, he lives on in the lives of those he never met.
The first part of becoming part of a community is to know that community and, with that in mind, the two disparate groups came together as one at an open-door event when Damien John Kelly House opened. Residents and staff were on-hand to welcome them, answer any questions, dispel a myth or two and, at the event’s conclusion, even to accept apologies from some of the most previously vehement objectors. Honesty, acceptance and willing.
“We had over 300 objections when we started this,” Head of Services Jacquie Johnston-Lynch told me. “And now we’re in demand,” adds PJ.
In more ways than one. The charity Action on Addiction reports an 86 per cent spike in those seeking help compared with this time last year. As demand for addiction services grows, opportunities for post-rehab recovery support remain depressingly, worryingly and dangerously thin on the ground.
PJ, whose own recovery has previously been documented in these pink pages, told me: “Rehab is not what we are and it’s important that people know the difference. Rehab is a strict regime – you’re in groups, in therapy all day, no phone. Then there’s recovery houses where you’re basically just left. A key worker will come and see you for an hour a week and that’s it. We wanted to be something in the middle of those two.”
And that means offering more support, a different of support?
“Yeah, so people have got sobriety behind them when they come to us, they know the landscape of the recovery world and what it requires of them. They’ve got their own free time, but we offer a mini programme to open them up to other things. Saying to people, ‘You’ve worked hard to get clean and sober, but what for? To do what?’”
Structured around similar elements to those PJ himself leant on, the programme sees art and culture, music and sport as an integral part of recovery. For those who’ve previously felt excluded by their addiction – or perhaps more honestly, those who used addiction to exclude themselves – there is an exposure to new ideas, new thoughts, new ways for growth while also reconnecting with the familiar. New priorities in life.
The cultural stream of the programme at the house presents opportunities for residents to engage with the wider community, through workshops, theatre and gallery visits, and strong links between Damien John Kelly House and Liverpool’s cultural sector. Creativity is actively encouraged in all, in whatever shape or form that might be. It is a powerful tool in recovery and can bring about profound changes in the way people see themselves and their future. It brings hope through expression and honesty, which is the true keystone of recovery from addiction. Art heals.
Sam is a photographer, artist, writer and – since he put addiction behind him and entered Damien John Kelly House – is now a filmmaker. When we first met, he spoke of himself as Sam the addict. Sam the drunk. “Fucked Sam” as he put it.
“Addiction is the death of self, the death of whoever you thought you were,” he says. “You’ve built this thing which isn’t you. When I came here I didn’t know who I was or what I was. Didn’t know who my mates were. I didn’t know anything. The thing about this house and this programme is it’s allowed me to find personal meaning. I’ve heard it before from people, they’ve said the same, it’s allowed them to find the true them.”
Creativity was always in him; collage, photography, writing all coming together as a single escape route which he calls his ‘practice’. Each element inspiring the others. Even in the depths of his addiction, he’d still create.
“It were fuckin’ sporadic, like,” he says with a strong South Yorkshire inflection. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to get where I wanted to be with it if I kept getting fucked. I used to joke about it… but I kept getting fucked.”
Across the room from Sam, another resident, Wayne, talks through his experiences of the programme at the house. He’s found a new priority, a new way to the same personal meaning Sam spoke of.
“I was supposed to be starting rehearsals for a play at the Epstein Theatre before the first lockdown,” he begins. “I first came to the house July  and by November I’d done two shows, in Edge Hill and the Unity Theatre, with Truth To Power Café, it was great.”
From there, with eyes opened anew to the wealth of creative possibility recovery brings, Wayne paid a visit to an open night, again at The Unity.
“It’s a new thing, a 20-week course. I had to apply and do an audition, but I was accepted. There was only eight of us who were accepted out of two hundred, then lockdown happened…”
“We were working with directors, actors,” he continues, “they said they saw something me. I got such a lot out of it, though, it was amazing. I’ve started writing, I’ve got things in mind, get some funding. Now I just want to grab it with both hands. For me it’s connection and just not saying no to these things. That’s what being here has given me.”
Recovery stories, tales of creativity, community, regrowth. A future borne of honesty, acceptance and willing at Damien John Kelly House.
As Jacquie puts it, “We know that people in Liverpool have some kind of addiction story in their family; addiction is rife in our communities. We’ve all got addiction stories. Our job here is to create recovery stories.”
And the people of Wavertree are now proud to be neighbours.