We read with great sadness the report that 14 homeless people have died of drug overdoses on the streets of Belfast so far this summer. We feel sad for the lives that have been lost and those who have lost friends and loved ones.
Sadness can turn to anger when we remember that things don’t have to be this way. We remember that there are those who have power to put in place systems that could prevent many of these deaths and minimise suffering, but they choose not to do so (often for ideological reasons).
Complicating Regional Factors
Drug use - and heroin use in particular - is highly stigmatised in Northern Ireland. Paramilitary vigilante groups threaten local drug dealers and users have had to flee smaller towns and source their drugs from trafficked Eastern European dealers in the big cities.
Third Sector Support
What support there is for these homeless drug addicted people tends to come from the third sector. Charities and unions stepping in where the government has failed to act. A march this week was organised by the People’s Kitchen Belfast and is supported by the Irish branch of the trade union Unite who want government agencies to do more. A big ask - when Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly at Stormont is currently not sitting.
Overdose Prevention Facilities
Extern - a leading social justice charity that operates across the whole island of Ireland - has called for the creation of Overdose Prevention Facilities (of which there are a dozen or so in Europe and precisely zero in the UK). This is a call that our organisation thoroughly endorses.
Overdose Prevention Facilities go a step further than needle exchanges. In addition to the provision of sterile equipment, they provide a safer environment for addicts to use drugs, testing facilities to record the strength and purity of substances and trained medical and counselling staff onsite. Evidence from abroad demonstrates that the opening of such facilities is always correlated with a reduction in drug deaths and increased uptake of support services.
The team at Extern cite the recent preventable deaths from overdose as evidence that a new approach is needed, but acknowledge that little progress will be made without support from politicians and policymakers.
At Kanndoo, we’re developing an app that will inform homeless people of the local provision of help and support from diverse organisations. But we also want to be useful to those who supply the help and support, and we want to campaign for improvements in the quality and availability of support.
Do you have a story that you would like to share? We're looking for people to feature in articles and short films about experiences of poverty and homelessness. Contact Kanndoo on 01603 971590 or email email@example.com