Northern Ireland news

`One more night on them streets and I would be dead' - Mona's story

Mona Lemon pictured in her home in south Belfast Picture Mal McCann.


A friendly voice calls out a greeting from a doorway along the corridor in a building of social housing flats in the Markets area of Belfast city centre.

It belongs to a small woman with a bright platinum-blonde bob in a neat khaki tracksuit, who is beckoning me with a warm smile.

Inside Mona Lemon's elegant, tastefully decorated home, Christmas has arrived, a winter fragrance scenting the air and a silver Christmas tree complete with presents arranged neatly below.

"They're all fake, wrapped boxes," the 44-year-old laughs at a tribute to her apparently impressive organisational skills.

"I have a diary where I keep a note of all my appointments, doctors, hospital, diabetes clinic. It took me three diaries [and tears] before I could keep track of things.

"I can't really write so I have my own code that I know what it says."

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With Depaul Housing First's help Mona has gained her tenancy, having lost her home in her early twenties and going on to spend almost two decades as a street drinker.

As we talk I realise that Mona and I have met before. During a 2003 feature on the outreach work being done by Fr Joe McGuigan at the Welcome Centre, then operating out of St Peter's Church in the Lower Falls.

I ask after her friend Sammy who she was close to then.

Mona Lemon pictured in her home in south Belfast Picture Mal McCann.

"He's dead. He died of throat cancer. All of the ones I knew from then are gone now. Either from drinking or from being on the streets."

Those who have known Mona the longest marvel that she has survived.

The loss of her home more than 20 years ago - "I was bringing the wrong people in and drinking with crowds on the streets" - also "cost me my two children".

Her mother took them in and her downward spiral, from drinking with friends down the park aged 13 or 14, continued.

Mona Lemon pictured in her home in south Belfast Picture Mal McCann.

"When I was first walking those streets I was drinking to die. I didn't want to live because I had lost everything. I had lost my children and my mum. I had nothing to live for."

During that time she had been in intensive care twice with liver failure, developed pancreatitis and diabetes - "I take 63 tablets a week" - and suffered multiple assaults.

"The second time I was back on the streets, I was in a real bad way with liver failure. I had no brain activity. For three years after that I stayed off the drink and went to church."

She moved back to a house beside her mother and was seeing her children again.

Then - "I thought I could handle my drink and I went for one."

Before long she was in the grip of her dependency again.

Fr. Joe McGuigan (left) chats with Mona and Sammy in the Welcome Centre in the lower Falls, Belfast back in 2003 Picture by Ann McManus

"Paranoia set in, mental health issued had crept up on me from years from the streets."

She ended up back there, sometimes sleeping rough in the rain and snow and trying to clean herself in trains station toilets, sometimes finding a bed the shelter at Divis Tower in the north of the city.

It was a return to the Welcome Centre, now rebranded the `Welcome Organisation' and located in Townsend Street, which put her in touch with Depaul and got her placed in their Stella Maris hostel.

It houses up to 23 long-term rough sleepers who have "issues with daily drinking" and often associated mental health issues and health problems.

Each has their own room and bathroom.

"Our Stella Maris service was a first of its kind in terms of the service it provides," Deirdre Canavan of Depaul says.

"It was initially met with some reservation but over the years people have seen its benefits. With the right supports in place people can begin to live independently again and really thrive in their communities."

"I was happy to get a shower and get a wash and cleaned," Mona says of the hostel.

Seeing Mona now, her appearance immaculate and her home spotlessly clean, one can understand what that feeling alone must have meant to her.

She describes how the alcohol management support system in the hostel saw her agree to switch from vodka to beer and reduce the amount from (no more than) one can every 45 minutes, to one an hour and on.

It is not the `AA' model, which is built around complete abstinence.

When Mona first moved into the - then bare - flat five years ago, her drinking increased again.

"I was drinking a lot. My money was going on drink and not food. I brought people in drinking too.

"I ended up in hospital and I saw sense. I realised I was going to lose this and I had to wise up. I really thought I was dead."

Depaul's floating support team never lost contact with her and she managed to keep her tenancy and move away from drinking which increased the painful symptoms from her pancreatitis.

"I had one little couple of days drinking, but on the next day came off it. I was too ill. It's the pain I can't stick."

She is determined never to return to the streets.

"I'm getting too old, all them beatings out on the streets - I know I would die. I know I couldn't survive. One night on them streets and I would be dead."

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