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'We've been to too many funerals': Study shows one third of homeless deaths linked to drugs or alcohol

A new study looked at the deaths of over 200 homeless people in Dublin over five years.

Image: RollingNews.ie

HOMELESSNESS AND ADDICTION campaigners have expressed concern after a new report showed that the rate of deaths among homeless people in Dublin was up to 10 times higher than the general population. 

New research published in the BMJ Open medical journal looked at deaths among a cohort of homeless people in Dublin over a five-year period as well as the leading causes of death.

The study – which was commissioned by the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE) and carried out by researchers from Trinity College Dublin – looked into 209 deaths recorded by the DRHE between 2011 and 2015.

Of these deaths, 201 were verified either from death certificates or coroner’s records. The other eight deaths were left out of the study.

The research found that the standardised mortality ratios (SMRs – basically the deaths in the group in comparison with expected deaths in the general population) was 3 to 10 times higher in homeless men and 6 to 10 times higher in homeless women, when compared with the general population. 

In terms of causes, drug- and alcohol-related deaths accounted for 38.4% of the deaths in homeless individuals. 

These were followed by circulatory (20%) and respiratory causes (13%).

The authors of the report concluded that mortality rates among the homeless population are “exceptionally high”.

They said that services and programmes – particularly housing and those targeting overdose and alcoholism – are urgently needed to help prevent premature death in this population.

“Too many funerals ”

Commenting on the findings, Tony Duffin – CEO of the Ana Liffey Drug Project – said that the findings reflect the anecdotal experience of the project’s teams on the ground.

“The findings are very interesting and disturbing, but it’s not a surprise,” he told TheJournal.ie.

This has been my experience at Ana Liffey and our team’s experience… We’ve been to too many funerals.

Duffin said that during the time period in question examined by the researchers polydrug use started to become more of an issue among Dublin’s homeless drug users. 

Polydrug use refers to addicts taking a range of different drugs, which in Dublin could be heroin, pills, mephedrone among others. 

“It’s really upsetting when you’re working with people,” he said.

“We know many of the people or knew many of the people who may have passed away.

There’s a human story behind every death. 

Duffin said that he didn’t believe that all overdose or drug-related deaths could be averted, but that evidence-based measures could be introduced to reduce the numbers. 

First and foremost he called for the decriminalisation of drugs for possession, which he said has been proved to help reduce deaths from overdose. 

“You can then talk to people and it’s a health-led response rather than a criminal justice response,” he said. 

Prohibition has failed in that regard… failed the people who use drugs and failed society in a wider basis. 

Other measures being called for is increased availability of the drug Naloxone – that can be used on a user in the event of an overdose – and the introduction of medically supervised injection centres. 

Despite legislation being passed in 2017 to allow injecting centres to be opened, planning delays and issues with businesses in the city centre have slowed down their opening.

The BMJ Open study can be read in full here        

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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