The ground floor cafe at Union Bank, in Huddersfield town centre, doesn’t feel like the front line in a battle against drug and alcohol addiction.
Children run among tables of chatting parents and friendly voices put the world to rights between mouthfuls of coffee and full English. It just seems... like a cafe.
“This is the sound of recovery,” says Larry Eve, service manager at The Basement Recovery Project, when he met me at the till end of the long service counter - formerly the bar of Huddersfield’s hottest LGBT nightspot, New Union Bank pub.
The Basement Recovery Project - a social enterprise dedicated to improving the experience and outcomes for people in recovery - bought the Grade II listed building in 2015 with a grant from Public Health England.
It is the project’s Kirklees hub after its original Halifax centre was founded in 2008 by a small group of volunteers who - as people in recovery themselves - saw gaps in existing treatment services.
To this day the whole project is run by people in recovery; from co-founder and chief executive Michelle Foster to the kitchen volunteers at Union Bank cooking up a free breakfast for anyone that drops in.
Larry explained everyone here has experienced first hand the “revolving door” of some rehab services. An addict goes away for detox, gets a certificate saying they are clean, and returns to the same environment they got sick in to start the process over again.
“Unfortunately for a lot of people, including myself, you have to remove yourself entirely from those same places and people.
“Only abstinence will work and your social network has to compliment your recovery.”
The Basement Project, with the help of its partners in Kirklees, has built a community for those in recovery. One where everyone is both receiving support and supporting others as part of a mutual-aid model for addiction treatment.
“The worst thing about recovery is feeling useless, feeling you’re letting people down,” recalls Larry, who has himself battled back from heroin, methadone, benzodiazepine and alcohol addiction.
“Here, everyone is an asset. Everyone is qualified by their experience.
“Because of that we can detect b******t really easily. If you miss a meeting, people know, and it’s not your keyworker that phones you up, it’s the bloke sat next to you at the last meeting or someone you were chatting with in the cafe last week.”
Looking around it’s impossible to distinguish staff from volunteers or service users - save for the occasional wad of documents shoved under an arm.
Larry, 48, explained this is a conscious effect. “We don’t wear badges. We’re saying ‘we’re just like you’ and service users have to think, ‘if they can do it, I can too’.
“Staff are only here nine to five but addiction doesn’t clock off so the service users have to support each other as a community.”
The doors at Union Bank are open until 10pm every night. The site is managed by a live-in caretaker and her partner, themselves in recovery.
Larry added: “There’s a massive emphasis on social sustainability. If we can grow people to work in the community then we’ve won.”
This ethos has given rise to a number of support groups and social organisations, set up by service users.
Theses include a support group for families of people in recovery, a mindfulness class and a group that organises social outings.
One of these was a trip to a Russell Brand gig after the comedian sent 35 free tickets to the project following his visit last year.
“Russell’s a friend of the project,” says, Larry as casually as possible though a poorly concealed grin.
Service users can take advantage of an hours-banking system where they earn funding towards qualifications for every hour spent in recovery sessions. This is how their resident holistic therapist gained his qualification. He now puts on free classes for other service users in a small room upstairs, kitted out for purpose by project staff and volunteers.
Another group, Kirklees in Recovery, based in the large second floor meeting room, has a policy called ‘Warrior Down’. If one of the group has slipped off the wagon the rest mobilise to bring them back.
The whole place exudes a spirit of openness and cooperation. Volunteers and staff are responsible for the transformation of the building itself, from LGBT pub to abstinence recovery hub. The interior was designed by chief executive Michelle Foster and the more hardcore renovation work was done by “a socially conscious builder from Holmfirth” according to Larry.
The work done by The Basement Project reflects the latest thinking on drug and alcohol addiction treatment.
As part of CHART - a collection of organisations, including Locala and Community Links, driving addiction treatment in Kirklees - The Basement Project has been influential in the design of a new service model.
CHART is managed by Change Grow Live (CGL), the national health and social care charity that manages addiction treatment in Kirklees, and they have seen the potential of the Basement Project.
Larry proudly explained: “In the past, treatment centres like ours have sometimes been seen as a threat to the mainstream organisations.
“But CGL saw the value in what we are doing. They have been brilliant, as have Public Health England (who awarded CGL the contract for Kirklees). Now we sit at the table with the big boys.”
This April CGL will roll out a new model for drug and alcohol addiction treatment in Kirklees that is based on improving the experience and outcomes for people in recovery - values at the heart of The Basement Project.
I spoke to Sarah Buckle, who was serving in the cafe when I arrived, about how The Basement Project has helped her fight her addiction. She was in a chipper mood having recently been offered a room in the project’s women’s house.
Sarah, 29, said: “When I was told last week I had a place in the house it was like ‘wow’.
“I’ve been an addict for 13 or 14 years. I never thought I’d stop doing drugs, it didn’t seem possible. I took drugs every day while I was pregnant.
“Then I lost my little girl when she was five days old and for the first time I properly wanted to get clean.”
Sarah was in touch with CGL but was only sporadically seeking help. She came to The Basement Project initially because she had problems with housing - they will help you with more than just addiction here - but became more involved after attending the breakfast club every now and again.
“Before I came to The Basement Project I wanted to get clean for my daughter. Coming here was the first time I wanted to get clean for me. It was the first time I thought it was possible.
“I threw myself into it and it feels like home here now. Everyone is totally non-judgemental because they’ve been there too.”
Sarah is at the early stages of recovery and she knows it will not be easy - but she also knows she is in the right place to give it her best.