File photo of a tent on Dublin's South William Street. Leah Farrell/
Ana Liffey Drug Project

Covid housing supports allowed drug users to 'better engage with treatment services'

It also led to a decreased reliance on drugs and alcohol among some service users.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 1st 2021, 4:19 PM

HOUSING SUPPORTS PROVIDED during the pandemic allowed drug users to engage better with treatment programmes, a charity has said.

The Ana Liffey Drug Project’s 2020 annual report details its work during the height of the pandemic, when people sleeping rough or those with underlying conditions already engaged with homeless services were provided with single-room accommodation.

Tony Duffin, chief executive of the drug treatment charity, said:

“To a certain extent, the extraordinary efforts of the State, partnering with both NGO and private accommodation providers, during the pandemic provide a natural experiment on the provision of housing to a homeless population that uses drugs who may not otherwise have benefited.”

Duffin told The Journal that the housing first model needs to be “sustained and championed” beyond the pandemic.

“We don’t want to see a step backwards,” said Duffin. “It may seem obvious to people but without housing, it’s very difficult to address other issues or areas of service users’ lives.”

Spread of the virus

Duffin reported that moving people to secure accommodation was not only effective in preventing the spread of Covid – citing research that shows 4% of the homeless population in Dublin were diagnosed with the virus compared to 50% in Paris – but led to a number of other benefits for service users.

This ranged from allowing them to better engage with treatment programmes, open financial accounts, feel an enhanced sense of security and led to ‘self-reported decreases in drug and alcohol use’.

The effort to bring people experiencing homelessness into more stable housing situations was, at least in the experience of the interviewees, both successful and unprecedented. It also had profound positive effects that went far beyond the mere provision of housing, or the prevention of transmission of disease.

Changes to access to opioid substitution therapy and benzodiazepine stablisation prescriptions led to ‘situations where previously such interventions would likely not have taken place.’

While the response to the pandemic was positively received, service users reported finding lockdown and restrictions difficult to cope with. One told the charity:

It was like I was just in a day dream all the time, and people coming up “[Name], are you alright?” and all, and I was just ‘mhmm, mhmm’.
It was like I was in a trance. I felt like I was really losing it.

The report found that knowledge of naloxone – a medication used to reverse the effects of opioid drugs – remained patchy, with half of the respondents seeming very familiar with it.

The Ana Liffey Drug Project recorded a significant increase in demand for its services in the midwest region.

The team generally works with an average of 250 people per year, but this rose to 490 in the past 12 months, with a focus on the Limerick area.

Duffin notes that the reduction in the number of pharmacy needle exchanges in Limerick was vastly reduced prior to the pandemic, with only a small number of pharmacies on the outskirts of the region still providing emergency packs.

Ana Liffey became the only provider of Needle and Syringe Programmes (NSP) in Limerick and much of the Midwest too, with 340 people accessing the NSP in the region last year.

Duffin added that the upside to this was an increased engagement with people at a time when services were drastically reduced.

He said Ana Liffey hopes to expand their midwest team to keep up with the growing caseload.

Rachel O’Donoghue, a team leader with Ana Liffey, also flagged a significant rise in the use of crack cocaine in Dublin:

We have already seen an increase in the numbers of people presenting to us; and it is unclear what more the aftermath of the pandemic will bring in terms of drug trends and numbers presenting for treatment.

Duffin notes that the rise in discarded drug paraphernalia around the city since the onset of the pandemic is “unacceptable”.

“We need to make sure that anything that is discarded unsafely is immediately cleared up and safely disposed of,” said Duffin.

“We also need to give people options in terms of where to they can use,” he added, stressing that it is important that the proposed supervised injection centre earmarked for Merchant’s Quay opens to “give people a safe space to use and to dispose of their paraphernalia” in the city.

Back in July, planning permission that was given to set up the nation’s first supervised injection facility on Merchant’s Quay was deemed invalid by An Bord Pleanála.

- With reporting from Adam Daly

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