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Dublin: 13 °C Thursday 18 October, 2018
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'I started taking drugs when I was 12 ... it was just seen as a cool thing to do'

TheJournal.ie spent a morning this week at Merchant’s Quay Ireland, which provides assistance to homeless people and drug users in Dublin.

MATTHEW* TRIED AN illegal drug for the first time at the age of 12. 

“It was just seen as a cool thing to do,” he said, recalling how he started smoking cannabis.

By 13, he was taking ecstasy.

Growing up, he says his mother smoked cannabis and his father was a drug dealer. Through his adult years, he has spent time in and out of prison. 

By the time he was in his early 20s, Matthew was living on the streets or staying in hostels. At one point, he remained in one hostel for a six-month period. It was here he got his first taste of harder drugs. 

“I had bad mental health. There was only me and one other person in that hostel. I was in that hostel for six months with one other person who was an active drug user. He was from the area I was from and I just got drunk and ended up trying it,” he said.

Matthew said he “felt like nobody cared” about him and that drove him toward heroin. 

 ”I ended up getting a heroin addiction. 

I came from a broken home and a broken family. I just wanted out of my head and out of my body. 

“It was just kind of a f*ck you to the world because I felt that the world didn’t care.” 

Around June of last year, aged 24, Matthew came to the realisation that he wanted to better his life. It was at this stage he linked in with a young person’s support worker at Merchants Quay Ireland. 

Although at first he struggled to keep his appointments and get into a regular routine, with the help of Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI), Matthew finally got onto a methadone programme. 

He is now working as a full-time cleaner and has been off drugs and alcohol for four months.

“If it wasn’t for the stuff [my case worker] has done, I couldn’t do any of this stuff today. I wouldn’t be working. I’d [be on] the streets and I’d still have a drug addiction,” he said. 

“I would maybe even be dead, most likely probably dead.” 

Merchants Quay Ireland

Merchant’s Quay Ireland (MQI) is an outreach and support service for homeless people and drug users in Ireland. Its day centre is located on the quays in the south inner city.

MQI provides homeless outreach and drug rehabilitation services at every level of addiction. Its day centre provides food, medical and counselling support for at-risk and homeless people.

In recent times, MQI extended its day service into the evening, offering evening meals, crisis support, information and assistance to homeless people and rough sleepers between 5.30pm and 8.30pm. The service was extended after MQI identified that there was a need for support to be available for homeless people during the hours that other services are closed. 

MQI’s Night Café also provides yoga mats for up to 65 people to sleep on each night who have not been able to source a place to stay. In 2017, MQI’s Night Café provided emergency shelter for 1,913 individuals. 

IMG_5746 The MQI day centre as seen from across the River Liffey. Source: Hayley Halpin via TheJournal.ie

TheJournal.ie has previously visited Merchants Quay Night Café to chat to staff and service users about how the service is run.

Earlier this year, the HSE announced that the country’s first supervised drug injecting centre will be operated by Merchants Quay Ireland. 

The new facility will provide access to clean, sterile injecting equipment and have trained staff on hand to provide emergency care in the event of an overdose. Staff will also provide advice on treatment and rehabilitation.

Andrew Rooney,MQI communications officer, told TheJournal.ie that the charity is planning to submit its planning applications for the centre within the next few weeks. 

Busy morning

TheJournal.ie also spent a morning in MQI earlier this week. The service was bustling, with service users and staff moving around various rooms and corridors throughout the building. 

As we entered, staff welcome people at the main reception. The front door of the building used to be where service users came into the building to attend the day centre, but earlier this year that was moved around to the side of the building, to alleviate long queues from the quays. 

Signs on how to inject more safely and others warning of the dangers of new drugs decorate the walls. As do pictures and paintings.

IMG_5742 A sign about safe needle exchanges Source: Hayley Halpin via TheJournal.ie

From the reception, we entered the common area, where the drop-in day centre is held. People were seated around circular tables, chatting and eating food. Two staff members served hot breakfasts to service users. 

The day centre offers a huge number of different facilities and services for people.

Showers, a doctor, hot meals, a dentist, a nurse, a needle exchange, various therapy and counselling classes are all on offer.

As are different recovery programmes and dedicated one-on-one social workers.

Rooney and Tim O’Driscoll, coordinator of crisis and case management services, walked us through the centre. On the ground floor are a number of empty offices. 

“They are basically a space where you can come in off the busy drop-in floor. Some of our crisis interventions happen here, so if someone comes in and they’re in crisis and need to see a caseworker, they will be brought over and given some quiet space,” O’Driscoll said as we stopped at one of the offices. 

We often have people who are brand new to homeless services. It can be an overwhelming environment coming into a busy drop in. So, giving them some quiet space is important.

As homeless figures have continued to rise and rise, O’Driscoll noted that the service has noticed an increase in new presentations of people seeking support, saying that there’s an average of 70 to 90 new presentations a month to the service. 

Health Promotion Unit 

Because MQI is often the first place homeless people living with addiction turn to for help and the charity sees its Health Promotion Unit (HPU) as an important part of early intervention. This is located in the upstairs of the building. 

The HPU provides people who use drugs with information about the risks associated with drug use and the means to minimise such risks. It also offers people who use drugs a pathway into treatment. 

Last year, 2,583 people used the service, an increase of 3% on 2016, of which 443 were new clients. 

This is where the dentist, needle exchange units, doctors, nurses and other health services are located. 

IMG_5744 A nurses' office at MQI Source: Hayley Halpin via TheJournal.ie

“Every day we’ll find from morning to night that the nurses’ list will be full. Similarly for the dentist,” O’Driscoll said. 

“There’s a lot to be said about these services for people with no medical cards and no access to primary care. This is really where they can get it.”

Needle exchanges

We dropped into one of the needle exchange rooms to chat to Darren Whelan, a project worker. He said that MQI preforms about 120 needle exchanges a day. 

A lot of the time, users just come in looking for new needles, but the service encourages them to bring in their used needles to be disposed of.

There are a number of other disposal measures for needles around the city, including a bin in nearby St Audoen’s Park, specifically for needles.

IMG_5733 Disposable bins in one of the needle exchange rooms at MQI Source: Hayley Halpin via TheJournal.ie

“There’s a lot of harm and dangers around reusing and stuff like that,” Whelan said. 

“Obviously, [we want] to give them the best knowledge around how safer injecting needle exchange goes. A lot of people would come in here under the illusion of ‘Well, this is what I should do because I was shown by this person’,” he said.

We could have someone who has never used heroin before or any drug before and are looking to use it. It would be up to us to go through the safest process with them, try to educate them and try give them the best knowledge around it. 

In the past, heroin was the main drug used by people on the streets in Dublin. However, earlier this year numerous drug outreach services in Dublin said there has been an increase in the availability and use of crack cocaine since summer 2017. 

A smokeable form of cocaine made by chemically altering cocaine powder to form crystals or rocks, crack-cocaine produces a short but intense high with effects much stronger than the powdered version of the drug.

On 13 July, MQI began providing clean crack pipes from its centre. It gave out 69 in the scheme’s first week of operation. 

Antoinette Peel, a young person’s support worker (a case worker), said that it was “quite scary” to see that crack cocaine use was beginning to rise among young people. 

Across the corridor from the needle exchange unit, we sat in a room and chatted with Peel. 

She works with service users between the ages of 18 and 25. If a new young service user comes into MQI, they are referred onto Peel and she performs an initial assessment of their situation. She works with the service user to support their needs, such as securing housing, receiving social welfare, obtaining PPS numbers, and drug supports if needed. 

With a continuously deepening housing and homeless crisis in Ireland, Peel said that there has been an increased pressure on the service. 

“There has been an increase in young people. We have [people] coming from families, we have [people] coming through State care coming into Merchants Quay. It has increased,” she said. 

It has put pressure on me because you’re worrying about a client being on the street. We know there’s risks and dangers outside there, so you’re putting safe plans in place so they can be safe when they are actually on the street. 

“It’s hard for me to turn around and say no, I can’t get a bed for you tonight and then I’ll pass them onto evening staff,” she said. 

Latest figures for August show that 5,834 adults and 3,693 children in emergency accommodation during the recorded period last month.

Just like many charities working to support the thousands of homeless people in Ireland, Merchants Quay is a big operation. As well as the day centre, it has long-term rehabilitation and detox centres in Carlow and provides numerous other services.

MQI launched is 2017 annual report last week. It outlined that last year, MQI helped 10,417 people with needs spanning homelessness, addiction and mental health. 

The charity again saw a huge increase in the number of healthcare interventions it provided in 2017, with the total almost doubling in two years. 

It provided 8,224 healthcare interventions last year, up 8% compared with 2016. Meanwhile, 419 people were supported by its mental health team, a 33% increase on 2016. 

Matthew represents just one of those 10,417 people helped last year. 

Reflecting on the progress he has made since linking in with a case worker at MQI, Matthew said: “I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. 

I’ve actually been out of prison for a year. That’s the longest I’ve been out of prison, out of trouble.

“[My case worker] really, really helped me.” 

 If you need to talk, please contact:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s) 

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of Merchant’s Quay Ireland service-users. For more information on Merchants Quay Ireland, visit www.mqi.ie.

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