Joseph Farrell’s life story proves it is never too late to change. Awarded Man of the Match for his outstanding performance during the first game of the 2013 Homeless World Cup, now he is looking forward to a bright future, something he couldn’t have envisioned trapped in the vicious cycle of addiction.
Born in Ringsend, Ireland, Joseph is the second of six children. His childhood was marred by his father’s alcoholism. “My dad was in and out of prison,” says Joseph, a friendly, remarkably healthy looking 43-year-old. “He was an alcoholic, and there was violence, but like many other drinkers he was the nicest bloke you’d meet without a drink on him.”
He admits to “acting up” but says he did fine at school, due mostly to his interest in sports, playing Gaelic football (like soccer, but players can carry the ball) and running for the school team. It was when he got to secondary school that he really went “off the rails,” ditching school for a year, smoking and robbing orchards. Expelled from school at 16, his behavior, which had been innocent enough, worsened. “I started drinking and smoking cannabis,” he says. “I moved out of my mother’s house, leaving a note saying I couldn’t live with her anymore.”
Still a child, he also became a father. However, the baby was taken into foster care. “My sister tried to take the baby but they wouldn’t allow it,” he remembers. “It was really traumatic. I’d have to go and see my daughter in the Eastern Health Board with a social worker. It was really sad, a very hard time.”
Trying to get money for drink, Joseph turned to crime, breaking into factories for money. After a spell in St. Patrick’s Institution, a juvenile prison, he started experimenting with heavier drugs. Before long, Joseph started dealing, but he was “his own best customer.” Injecting both heroin and cocaine, he would do anything to feed his habit. “I remember jumping into a car one evening after injecting coke, driving all the way to Phibsboro, holding up a shop to get money.”
When he was caught and charged with intent to supply, the judge, while sentencing him to 18 months, ordered detox. Some weeks earlier Joseph had saved a family from a burning flat, scaling the balconies to reach them, and the judge heard of his heroic deed. “The judge recognized there was a lot of good in me,” he says. “That’s why he went easy on me.”
He lived up to this trust, detoxing in prison as well as completing a 10-module cleaning course, passing his driver’s exam and excelling in the prison’s drama group. On his release in 1995, he got a job supervising airplane cleaners at Dublin airport. While things were good for a while, it wasn’t long before he slipped.
“This bloke came from Heathrow [Airport] to work with us and asked me if I’d score him heroin. That was the start of it: I ended up back on drugs for years; it got really bad.” Homelessness followed, a horrible period, he says, where he slept in the doorway of Dublin City Council offices. “My self-esteem was on the floor,” he says.
For Joseph, hitting rock bottom was the start of his journey back. But he reached out, phoned his brother and asked for help in 2008. “He got me an interview for a stabilization program, and from the day I went there I didn’t take another drug.”
It didn’t happen overnight. Joseph moved to a rehabilitation facility. From there he went into transitional housing before taking part in a six-month day-care program as well as an aftercare recovery group. He now has his own flat, is in a stable, long-term relationship and hopes to start a coaching course next month.
Playing with the Big Issues Street Leagues also gave Joseph the focus he needed. “When I started winning trophies — especially at my age — it helped me big time,” he smiles. “It gave me motivation, and I looked forward to meeting the lads every week and having a game.”
The culmination of it all was representing his country at the Homeless World Cup. “My sister had given me a big Irish flag and during our opening game against the Czech Republic, we laid it out on the pitch,” he says. “That was the highlight: standing there representing my country as the National Anthem played.”