Belfast Telegraph

Homelessness 'becoming acceptable'

Homelessness and rough sleeping has become acceptable in Ireland, a leading charity has claimed.

The head of the country's largest voluntary homeless and drugs agency, Merchants Quay Ireland, said up to 150 people spend the night on the streets of Dublin every night.

The last official survey of the number of rough sleepers in the capital was carried out in April and recorded 128 people on the streets on a single night.

Tony Geoghegan, speaking at the launch of the charity's annual review of its services for 2013, warned that homelessness was becoming an accepted part of life.

"It has become or it seems to have become acceptable," he said.

Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI) gave out 85,170 day and evening meals to people seeking support at its centres last year - an 11% increase.

It recorded 4,467 occasions when homeless people sought assistance from a GP, dentist, nurse or counsellor through the charity, a 35% increase.

And it also recorded up to 130 people - the vast majority from Eastern Europe - using a special service for homeless and rough sleepers for several hours every evening before the limited beds in hostels open.

Mr Geoghegan said homelessness was an immediate issue that needed to be addressed as people die on the street but that the political will was needed to focus on basic housing and shelter provisions.

The charity chief called on the Government to review possible rent controls, rent caps for people on welfare and the supply of emergency hostel beds to ease the crisis.

Merchants Quay also noted the increasing demand for its services around the country.

It said its outreach service in the Midlands experienced a 34% increase while more than half of the admissions to the St Francis Farm Detox unit were from outside Dublin and covered 18 counties.

It recorded a 10% increase in new drug users taking advantage of its needle exchange programme.

Mr Geoghegan also flagged that 10% of the drug users accessing the needle exchange were using steroids.

He described it as a worrying new phenomenon and warned there is little information on the consequences of longer term use of these drugs.

Merchants Quay each year calls on the Government to respond to its reports by increasing detox and rehab facilities across the country.

This year Mr Geoghegan said some of the focus in the budget should be on targeting the economic recovery to the most vulnerable.

"It's totally unacceptable that up to 150 people are sleeping rough on the streets of Dublin every night," he said.

"While there is much talk of the improving economic situation, these improvements haven't filtered down to those most in need. In fact, conversely, as the economy recovers, it has placed increased pressure on the over-priced rental market and is trapping more and more people in homelessness."

The annual review detailed the extent of the services supplied by Merchants Quay to drug users and homeless people.

:: The amount of needles being exchanged has gone from 18,951 in 2011, to 20,847 in 2012 and 22,898 last year.

:: 3,260 users used the service at drop-in centres, 614 of whom were new.

:: There 257 needle exchanges each month in the Midlands.

:: 3,065 prisoners were referred to the Merchants Quay addiction services and 2,444 individuals used the addiction services.

:: The charity's healthcare service for homeless people provided over 4,500 individual client interventions

:: Growth in drug use outside Dublin continued with the Midlands harm reduction outreach service seeing 3,264 visits to the service, an increase of 34%.

:: Almost half of those accessing the drug-free rehab service at High Park, Drumcondra, and St Francis Farm, Tullow, were from outside Dublin.

:: More than 350 people seek a breakfast or lunch at Merhcants Quay Riverbank centre on a Sunday.

MQI provides services ranging from open access crisis intervention and health promotion services, to day support programmes, educational programmes, vocational training and settlement support services.

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