It's Tough to Stay in Homeless Hostels, and Away from Drugs, Some Say

It’s all around you in these places, says Eamon Doyle, nursing his backpack on his knees. “You can hear the lighters going, the cans opening, you can smell the stuff.”

It makes the chances of relapse very high, he says.

Around him at a table in the Peter McVerry drop-in centre on Berkeley Road, two others listen in, and interject, as Doyle talks about his experiences of the malignant relationship between homelessness and drug use.

Breakfast rolls of sausages, rashers and eggs with ketchup have been eaten. Tea drunk.

“You find yourself in that situation of being demoralized, embarrassed, dirty, the drugs just take the edge off. They’re just an emotional painkiller,” says Doyle.

“I stay in a tent that’s how bad they are,” says Kathleen Delaney, a woman in her twenties.

Among the many complaints from those who dip in and out of the city’s homeless hostels is that it can be hard to avoid drugs and smoking, for those who are trying to stop using, and those who haven’t started.

Those who use homeless services say they just wish all rooms were single rooms for individuals, where they could have some small sense of home.

The System

Delaney stays in hostels sometimes, she says.

But they’re not good. There’s the constant feeling of having to watch your back, of being on edge. “Like you have to keep your runners on going into these places,” she says.

“Never mind your runners, or your clothes. That’s all material,” says Dean Farrell, a man in his twenties, who first became homeless as a teenager.

He was working the night shift in a pharmaceutical company up until last month but couldn’t keep it going any longer, he says.

Staying in emergency accommodation meant he got little sleep and his clothes stank of second-hand smoke. Eventually, he gave up the job.

It was impossible to marry the responsibilities of a job with the inflexibility of staying in a homeless hostel, he says.

“They turn you into a beast,” says Farrell. “You snap” – he clicks his finger – “like that”.

Both Farrell and Doyle said they think people should get their own rooms, with 24-hour services – like help from keyworkers, addiction services, counselling, and other social supports.

At the moment, there’s something of a ladder of hostels – with some beds that are night-by-night, for which people have to call every day, and others that are longer-term six month beds.

Ideally, blocks should be be divided between people that are off drugs, people that are trying to get off drugs and people who are currently in the worst throes of addiction, says Farrell.

Fr Peter McVerry says that at the moment, through the freephone, there is nothing done to determine what might be most suitable for the person who is calling for a bed for the night.

People call, recite their name and date of birth and are told where to go for a bed, he says.

“There is no distinction made,” says McVerry. “You could be an 18-year-old who has never seen a drug in your life and you could be put in a room with people who are smoking crack cocaine in the middle of the night in front of you.”

Tim O’Driscoll, the coordinator of crisis and case management at Merchants Quay Ireland, which provides homeless and addiction services, says the priority has to be to give the person a bed.

“On a one-night emergency basis, the need is for an emergency bed for that evening,” he says.

Although all emergency beds are supposed to be drug-free – given that drug use is illegal – in reality the use of drugs and alcohol is widespread within hostels.

However, even the threat of restrictions keeps some people from accessing emergency accommodation, says McVerry.

“A lot of people won’t go into the hostels because they’re drug free. […] I think there’s a need for a variety of hostels,” he says.

Routes into homelessness can vary. Some people are evicted from their rental homes, or unable to live in overcrowded family conditions. Others might have more complicated histories of trauma and addiction.

A spokesperson for the Dublin Region Homeless Executive said it can’t differentiate between people when allocating beds through the freephone.

“It is not possible for homeless services to discriminate against drug-users when providing emergency accommodation and therefore all services are expected to manage an individual’s presenting needs, whatever they may be,” the spokesperson said.

A Catch-22

For those trying to stabilise their lives, there’s something of a catch-22, says McVerry.

Before somebody can access a treatment centre to deal with issues surrounding addiction, they must detox. But for many, even accessing a detox centre is tough.

So “some people might choose to detox completely off the street and then go straight into a treatment centre and bypass the detox centre,” says McVerry. “And it’s impossible to do that in a hostel […] because people using drugs offer you drugs.”

Some homeless services, such as those offered by The Peter McVerry Trust and Merchants Quay Ireland, are “low-threshold” services. That they means they’re harm-reduction services that deal with the reality of drug users’ complex needs and backgrounds.

“Because it’s a low-threshold service, there is a risk assessment carried out for everybody that is accessing the service and there’s a response to the same,” says O’Driscoll.

“We’re meeting people where they’re at so, I mean, we’ve all the support services here to treat high-support needs, whether it be harm-reduction case work, mental-health case work,” he says. “There’s a response to everybody’s needs.”

Having a mix of people with different needs does create challenges. When Noel Wogan was staying in the Ellis Quay hostel, a 70-bed hostel run by The Peter McVerry Trust, the environment there let him clear his head and focus on trying to find his own apartment.

Not so before, in places where he’d previously stayed. He says he remembers being called upstairs one night by one of the support staff to the women’s floor, to help her stop a fight, despite him being a resident there.

“They were tearing lumps out of one another,” says Wogan, “absolutely killing each other […] Most are afraid to go into hostels. They can’t get a night’s sleep.”

Francis Doherty, head of communications at The Peter McVerry Trust, says some clients can become aggressive and violent towards staff because of drug use.

“We are seeing much more complex cases and the cases are becoming more challenging,” he said.

Inner City Helping Homeless deals with “anything from 70 to 100 people per night” who are “sleeping out”, says Brian McLoughlin, head of communications there.

“[T]he majority of those people don’t want to engage with services at all because of a previous negative experience,” McLoughlin says.

What’s Needed?

So, is there a need for more beds or hostels that have a zero tolerance towards drugs and alcohol?

“There’s a need for dry beds within the system,” says O’Driscoll of Merchants Quay, though, again, how to assess that over the phone is very difficult.

Merchants Quay Ireland is more a shelter than a hostel. Although people are still referred through the homeless freephone, its “night cafe” offers crash mats and blankets.

But many emergency accommodation providers, or hostels, are also low-threshold and those in the need of a bed for the night are confronted with the reality of drugs, intimidation and violence.

Doherty of the Peter McVerry Trust says that these days, most operators of hostels don’t use terminology such as “dry” or wet”. The DHRE in its 2014 Homeless Action Plan called these terms “deeply misleading” and said they distract from the nature of the services provided.

DHRE talks instead about low-threshold beds, like those at Merchants Quay, and higher-threshold beds, which are “for stable and motivated people and younger groups, that have successfully completed a residential treatment programme”, according to a DRHE spokesperson.

DRHE didn’t respond to queries about how many higher-threshold beds it offers.

McVerry says that – other than housing everybody who is homeless – one step forward from the current system would be to give everybody their own room, whether they’re high-threshold or low-threshold.

“I think a homeless person should be able to go into a hostel, and go into their space, know that they are not going to be attacked during the night, know that their belongings will still be beside their bed in the morning,” says McVerry.

Homeless nearly 12 years, Wogan is finally in a higher-threshold facility, in a supported temporary accommodation, a facility with beds for six months at a time, in Cabra.

He still has to share a room with three other people. But he knows who is coming and going and the environment feels stable, he says.

Staff have a responsibility too to ensure order is maintained, says Wogan. Where he is now, he says, the staff will constantly check in on you. In other places he has been, staff “just tolerate it”.

Doyle says he thinks it’s important to to give people a sense of home, to introduce a sense of security back into their daily routine.

Otherwise, “morally and psychologically, that’s demoralising,” he says. “You need to have a sense of home.”

Author:

Sean Finnan: Sean Finnan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach him at sfinnan@dublininquirer.com.

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