Sunday Life speaks to the addicts and workers on the front line of Belfast’s drugs crisis
In the shadow of the majestic St Anne’s Cathedral lies a post-peace problem that’s often not seen but the evidence is not hard to find.
Those living on the streets take shelter in every nook and cranny they can find.
We’re in the thriving hospitality heart of Belfast, but it’s a city gripped by a mental health and addiction crisis, with more and more victims paying for it with their lives.
Sunday Life spent time on the streets to show the reality of what’s going on in plain sight.
Yards from St Anne’s Cathedral, in an area known as Writers’ Square, is where some addicts had their latest fix just a few hours ago.
Needles and other drug paraphernalia litter the ground. There are empty bottles and cans all around too — alcohol is also a major issue and many are addicted to both.
This is borne out by the latest grim figures highlighting the human cost, with drug and drink deaths both now at a record high.
It has just gone 5am, and it falls to council cleaner Eddie to clear up this side of the city before Belfast opens for business.
“Every morning people are sleeping in sleeping bags outside the cathedral. It’s just awful,’’ says Eddie.
“It’s horrible to see young girls sleeping in doorways. It shouldn’t be happening. It’s bad and it’s getting worse and worse.
“You come in later on and you’ll see them all sitting there [in Writers’ Square] with drink and drug problems. It’s horrible to see.”
While there’s nothing Eddie hasn’t seen before he’s worried about what appears to be happening now. “I grew up in the east end of Glasgow — there was heroin all over the place. It was the late 80s,” he says.
“I worked in Dublin and all and it was bad there as well, but I’ve seen Belfast gradually go downhill with the drugs. It’s really bad, it’s getting as bad.”
Asked if he had seen anyone shooting up, he told me: “I’ve seen it a couple of times. One time a man jumped up with a needle sticking in his arm. I was like, ‘What?’. We are picking up loads of needles now.
“When we are on a break sometimes we see some of them [dealers] selling it openly. What do you think is causing it? Why are the drugs getting in so easily?”
The answer to that is not a straightforward one. Police have had a number of successes recently in the fight against drugs, but they know they will never stop it.
Sources say as long as the demand is there, there will always be a supply, with dealers waiting in the wings to take over when one of their number is locked up.
A few streets from Writers’ Square, huddled under the canopy of a well-known department store, a line of people sleep side by side, all their possessions in plastic bags.
Around the corner in Donegall Place, just yards from City Hall, more evidence of the darker side to life here. One woman lies awkwardly on the ground outside a shop, completely out of it.
Not far from here, another group is bunched under the entrance of a well-known building. The hand of a woman sticks out from a sleeping bag. She’s clutching a bag containing white powder which looks like cocaine.
The class A drug has been behind a number of deaths. One addict we bump into wandering the city’s streets with his sleeping bag over his shoulders injects cocaine for an immediate hit.
To protect his identity, we’ve called him ‘Sam’.
The 32-year-old has just got his fix. We offer him breakfast, but he says he’s not hungry because he’s “buzzing’’ too much.
“My head has just been away with drug addiction,’’ he tells me. “I was addicted to heroin for five years. I’m clean now, but I’m on a script [for methadone to treat dependence], but now I’m addicted to cocaine. It’s just a vicious circle.”
Sam is very open about his addiction and more than willing to talk. He tells me he has around 30 hits every day.
Where does he get the money from? Begging and benefits.
“I can’t stop. I go through three eights of cocaine a day. You are talking about half a bar of cocaine a week,” he says.
“You’re just buzzing. You stop thinking about all your problems, but they are still there.
“I went through a rehab thing, but it’s getting clean for 72 hours... it’s hard.
“You are constantly craving your next hit. I’m not long after one, but I’m craving now.”
Sam shows us the needle marks on his arms. Its distressing to see. He says he’s under a death threat from paramilitaries because they think he’s still taking heroin. The reality is they are making a fortune off addicts just like Sam.
“I was on heroin for five years, but when you are clean off one drug you move onto another. People don’t realise you can inject cocaine,’’ says Sam.
I ask how easy it is to get it here in the city centre, and he replies: “You can just go round the corner. Every street corner there are people selling cocaine, or people would just drop it off to you.
“Ketamine [a powerful anaesthetic] is going about now. People are injecting it.”
It’s believed Patrick McIlroy, who lived on the streets and whose death in a city toilet Sunday Life covered recently, took ketamine, which is normally used on animals.
“Most people look at you like you’re nothing, but there are people out there who have a heart who do try and help you,’’ explains Sam.
Asked about the recent deaths of people who’d been living on the streets, he says: “It’s hit big time. The town is just not the same anyone. Everyone’s dead.”
Jack Crane, who was Northern Ireland’s top pathologist for decades, has been very outspoken about the drugs problem.
He has seen first-hand the damage abuse does to the body and to the families of the victims.
“During the so-called Troubles, there wasn’t a really big drug problem,” he recalls.
“That’s not saying the paramilitaries weren’t involved, but in the last few years it has really taken off. It’s a cocktail of drugs.
“I have dealt with lots of death. I just get the impression some people think these are just drug addicts, that they don’t really matter — it’s just another drug death. It’s very tragic.
“There is a real problem in Glasgow and I think we are heading along similar lines. We need more of a coordinated effort to deal with this.”
Liz Rocks has been working with the families of those who lost their lives recently.
She revealed that hours after we were on the streets, her centre in the city, called Belfast Homeless Services, had a crisis involving a young woman in her 20s.
“We were dealing with an opioid overdose, but after administering naloxone [a drug that reverses the effects], she wasn’t coming round and that told us she was using more than one drug,’’ says Liz.
“If you know what they are taking, it is easier, but places like ours don’t know.
“You don’t know when you open at 7.30 at night what they’ve taken. You have to make a quick assessment to deal with it properly.
“It’s scary, absolutely scary for our future and scary for these people. There just doesn’t seem to be any kind of hope this will stop.
“I fear it will get worse and be passed onto the younger generation, then it becomes normal that we continue to watch open drug use, watching people being totally out of it in the town and continually hear about people dying.”
THIS is not a new problem or unique to Northern Ireland — it’s happening in towns and cities all over the UK and well beyond.
The answer is certainly not a straightforward one, and there is no one size fits all solution.
Some are calling for a special taskforce and dedicated facility in the city to help tackle the addiction problems and the mental health issues that often lie behind that.
In relation to drugs some believe so-called drug consumption rooms, where people can safely inject, could be the way to go.
But campaigners in Glasgow who have long been trying to set up the first such permanent facility in the UK are still lobbying for Home Office approval.
What’s happening elsewhere is being closely watched in Northern Ireland.
In the meantime, the situation is deteriorating in terms of the human cost, with addicts living on the streets and openly using for weeks on end.
All this is happening in a city that is trying to showcase itself to the world.
One businesswoman who works in Belfast told Sunday Life: “It will deter people from coming into the city. It is more visible and has become that bad there are some places you now avoid — no-go areas basically.
“That’s the reality of what is going on right now in Belfast.”
A lot of work is happening on the ground to help those in crisis. But what more can those in power do try and combat the problem?
Belfast City Council says neighbourhood and alcohol enforcement officers provide a visible presence across the city and work with the PSNI to undertake joint patrols.
It says drugs paraphernalia in public places is quickly removed and the council works closely with voluntary and support organisations in tackling these complex issues. With regards to policing the problem, PSNI Superintendent Amanda Ford told Sunday life: “We constantly monitor crime trends and deploy our resources to the areas of greatest need and vulnerability.
“Drugs supply and demand is a vicious cycle that we need to collectively break as it feeds wider organised criminality, impacts on our most vulnerable and causes lasting harm and suffering for families and communities.
“It is important to recognise that drug and alcohol abuse can be symptoms of underlying societal problems and that law enforcement is only one aspect of our collaborative response.
“We are working closely with partners to come up with innovative, long-term solutions to help build safer communities and tackle this problem.”
In terms of Stormont, responsibility falls within three departments — health, communities, and justice — with decisions and actions then filtered down.
The Department of Health says there must be a “collective” response, adding Health Minister Robin Swann welcomes the opportunity to discuss the issue in an upcoming meeting with the family of Patrick McIlroy.
On top of the services already there, the department says work is under way to develop a new strategic plan for substance use services.
The Department of Justice says it is “committed” to bringing criminals “who seek to profit from people’s vulnerabilities to justice” and working with others “to address the root causes of substance use, which are complex and wide-ranging”.
The Department for Communities says it is committed to making sure there is enough housing support and services in place for those in need.
“The minister is seeking to further develop a multi-departmental strategic approach to improve services. However, this can be no substitute for a fully functioning Executive and an agreed budget,” adds a spokesperson.