[Hpn] London, England, UK - Tackling addiction on the streets - Guardian Unlimited, UK - July 14, 2002

Editor Editor <hccjr@bellsouth.net>
Sun, 14 Jul 2002 15:16:37 -0500

Tackling addiction on the streets

Homeless people can overcome the odds and get clear of drink and drugs. But when
eighty per cent of the homeless have drug problems, a shift of focus from
criminalisation to treatment is urgently needed.

Editoral by Shaks Ghosh - Guardian Unlimited, UK - July 14, 2002

London, England -- The appalling statistic from our research - over 4 out of 5
homeless people addicted - says it all.

The strangle-hold that drugs and drink have on our clients is destroying lives
at an alarming rate.

Drugs have not always been a part of the homelessness landscape.

Fifteen years ago, it was drink that was killing homeless people

Now, a combination of the two dominates people's experiences of homelessness and
in all the time that I have worked for Crisis, it has been a very rare
occurrence to meet a homeless person who doesn't have a drug or drink problem.

Getting out of addiction is hard enough for anyone, but homeless people have the
hardest battles to fight.

 One in five homeless people suffering from a severe mental health problem,
making mental distress a defining characteristic of homeless.

For a person with poor mental health, an addiction and no home, life can be
incredibly chaotic and frightening.

 Constantly on the move, switching from hostels, to squats, to B&Bs and the
streets, their lives are unbelievably unstable.

 The chances of being registered with a GP are often slim, the probability of
being surrounded by people with more severe addictions high.

 How a person is supposed to find the courage to seek out help for their
problems I don't know.

And yet homeless people do it.

In spite of the chaos and pain in their lives, they can and do turn the corner
and decide to become clean.

But getting help is another battle entirely, which many people are failing to
win. In our research, around half the addicts who wanted help had not received
it in the past twelve months.

 The reasons for this - a basic lack of services, a lack of choice and long
waiting times - were constant obstacles which robbed our interviewees of their
motivation to get clean and left them feeling betrayed.

For those addicts who are lucky enough to get help, the problems don't end
there. A place in a detox unit, as precious as it is, is no use to a person if
they are not supported to stay clean. A person nursing a 20-year addiction may
not get it right the first time round and emerge as a fully-rehabilitated person
after eight days.

After-care and support are critical because completing a detox programmes
carries many dangers.  A person's physical tolerance of drugs plummets after a
stint in detox and if they suddenly start using again, the risk of overdosing
and dying are high.

To prevent this from happening, addicts need to be supported not just to stay
clean but also to get housing, training and even a job. Sadly, we are a long way
off from this position and in the meanwhile, even more lives will be wasted.

For those people who are too terrified or whose lives are yet too unstable for
treatment, we must provide support.

Harm minimisation services - such as needle exchanges - and compassionate
health-care must be available for them until they are ready to move forwards.

The opportunity to put an end to the damage of addiction lies in our reach.
Drugs policy is at a critical juncture in this country. Recent reports on drug
use, from the Audit Commission and Home Affairs Select Committee have been
excellent in highlighting the urgent need to provide more treatment for drug

 The Home Secretary has responded positively by pledging more money and an
expansion of treatment services.

 Whether the money will be enough, only time will tell; it will certainly need
to be sustained in the long-term.

However money alone is not enough and it's important that the right policies and
services are in place to provide addicts with the range of treatments they need
to overcome their addictions.

 Positive steps forward have been made - the expansion of heroin prescribing is
welcomed news for Crisis - but the Home Secretary's decision to not introduce
safe injecting rooms is a missed opportunity to save lives.

If we are to be truly effective at tackling addiction amongst homeless people, a
dedicated national drugs strategy is needed for them.  Who owns this strategy is
another matter.

Be it the Home Office or the Department of Health, one thing is clear -
compassion and treatment, not criminalisation, must be key.

Implementation rests on the shoulders of the Drug Action Teams (DATs) who
commission all drug services in local areas.

 The remit of the DATs is vast, the pressure on their time immense.   Although
homeless people are used to being bottom of the pile, it is not acceptable for
them to fall off the priority list.

Drug Action Teams need specific targets and ring-fenced budgets for homeless
people, to ensure their needs are being met.

 Without this, homeless people will continue to die and this shameful situation
can no longer be tolerated.

Send us your views
Email Observer site editor Sunder Katwala at observer@guardianunlimited.co.uk
with comments on articles or ideas for future pieces. You can write to the
author of this piece at virindira.bains@crisis.org.uk.

About Observer Comment Extra

The Observer website carries additional online commentary each week, with
articles responding to recent pieces and offering additional coverage of the
major issues. Please get in touch if you would like to offer a piece and see
Observer Comment for this week's pieces. Online commentaries are also trailed in
the print pages of the newspaper.

source page:  http://observer.co.uk/politics/story/0,6903,755083,00.html
Shaks Ghosh is Chief Executive of Crisis. Their new report "Home and dry?"-
Homelessness and substance use is published this week. See www.crisis.org.uk for
more information

Homeless and Housing News