Homelessness: A New Frontier

By Sarah O’Brien

The days where homelessness was confined to sleeping rough on a park bench are gone, though that still is a glaring reality for many in other parts of the country. The term homeless has evolved to take on a new meaning in this post-recession world. A society that has been brought to its knees in recent years struggles as bank debt mounts and bailouts suffocate.

The amount of people living on or below the poverty line increases with every passing day, so much so that one in four children are now considered impoverished. Unicef’s 2014 report exposed the raw underbelly of Europe’s bullyboy tactics and Ireland’s own weak admission at the school gate. That’s 28% of Irish children made destitute, a statistic that is neither justifiable nor rational.

Homelessness can now mean ‘couch surfing’ whether that be staying on a mate’s sofa or in a family member’s spare room with your partner and child. It could mean living in long term hostel accommodation. Poverty strips families bare. No permanent abode invites a lack of security, potential discrimination in the jobs market, and it can even prevent someone claiming something as essential as a medical card.

Though sleeping rough on the streets of Limerick has all but disappeared, it has been replaced by an insidious cycle of drug use and poverty. The cause of homelessness if of course multi-faceted, though certainly drug abuse can be a major contributing factor.

Homeless services like SVP have experience working with drug users. Tom Flynn, SVP’s drop in centre manager and qualified family addiction counsellor has been at the helm of the project since it’s opening in 2002.  Though SVP is not a dedicated addiction organisation, they offer a service that runs complementary to other homeless/drug addiction services.

‘’When we first opened 12 years ago, alcohol addiction was what was keeping people homeless, now it is drug addiction,’’ Mr Flynn noted.

The SVP drop in centre offers a range of services, including a soup kitchen, laundry and shower facilities and counselling. They will also refer service users with drug and alcohol addiction to other organisations such as the Ana Liffey Project.

Addiction is of course incredibly pervasive by nature and often attention to the users basic needs fall by the wayside. Where addiction treatment is concerned relapse can often be expected though this is not the measure of failure, it is the nature of addiction.

’’People living in isolation who take psychotropic substances often experience a decrease in self-confidence when interacting with their peers. This in turn arrests their emotional and psychological development and for some people leaves them unable to meet their own basic needs. These needs become chronic and unless serious intervention is procured, addiction happens,’’ Tom Flynn said.

The Novas initiative which was set up by Br. Stephen Russell, provides long term support for the homeless struggling with addiction and mental health issues. Their policy is also a harm reduction strategy which seeks to put their clients’ needs first. ‘’We try to foster social inclusion and let our clients make their own decisions. What the client needs we try and give. We don’t lecture or tell them they have to give up their addiction, instead we might listen to their needs and suggest that they cut down from drinking 6 cans a night to five,’’ team leader Breda Garry said.

Novas believes in promoting healthy ideologies amongst its clients but disregards the cultural norm of blame appropriation. ‘’Yes the individual is responsible for their choices but there are factors bigger than that which influence and shape us all whether we like it or not,’’ She commented. In a 2014 study conducted by Novas it was found that 93% of the residents of their McGarry House division had witnessed someone overdose with the vast majority of them being in the last 6 months. More frightening still is the fact that 36% of those who overdosed in McGarry house where alone.

Another front line service which deals more explicitly with drug users is the Ana Liffey Project. Their harm Reduction/ low Threshold policy means there are no barriers preventing drug addicts from accessing help. It includes giving clean needles to drug users and promoting safer disposal of drug paraphernalia which in turn is safer for the wider community.

Two of the most commonly used drugs in Limerick are Heroin and Benzodiazepines. The later more commonly known by the street name Benzo is a psychoactive drug which can alter perception, mood or consciousness. As part of Ana Liffey’s harm reduction model they would encourage drug users to use these medical grade benzo’s rather than ‘sticks’ which are a dangerous homemade drug often used as a cheaper alternative to Xanax. So called ‘sticks’ are often laced with Heroin and can be deadly to the drug user.

‘’In my opinion benzo’s are more difficult than Heroin to get clean from, because at least with Heroin you can detox, two weeks of hell but at least it’s over, with Benzo’s, people who try detoxing have very serious fits, many of our clients are poly drug users, so if we can get them down to one drug we’ve been successful’’, commented Team leader Rachel Conway. The team constantly ask how they can make life more stable for the drug users before they can try to reduce drug use.

‘’If your basic needs aren’t being met it’s incredibly difficult to stay off drugs, the measure of our success is in helping drug users meet and manage their own goals, we will do our best and meet them where they are at,’’ Rachel Conway added.

The Ana Liffey Project is currently working on getting a medically supervised injecting centre which would allow drug users a safe supervised place to use. A similar model is in operation on continental Europe and in Australia and has proved highly successful.

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