UTV content editor Carol Jordan spent the night with staff from the Welcome Organisation as they worked the streets of Belfast to support the homeless and those struggling with drug dependency.
Preparing in the Welcome Organisation before we head out to film with the staff whose job it is to go out every night to help those on the street I spoke with Alannah, a new member of staff who only joined the organisation four weeks ago.
"It’s really eye opening," she remarked.
"It’s not until you go out on the streets, particularly early in the morning, that you realise just how many homeless people there are and it only seems to be getting worse."
That’s an observation echoed by her more experienced colleague Susan.
As well as seeing that number rising, she says there are other changes too.
Poly drug use is becoming more common and new drugs have made their way to the region. She’s not wrong.
In a separate interview with the Coroner, Joe McCrisken, he confirms that a new family of synthetic benzo drugs were present in 75% of drug deaths seen in Northern Ireland during the first six months of the year.
Most of these drugs I had never heard of before.
Every night, Welcome Organisation staff like Susan and Alannah turn on the centre’s mobile phone where they will be called by anyone who might need food or a sleeping bag, from locals who might be concerned that a homeless person appears to be unresponsive to dealing with a myriad of other issues that those on the street might be dealing with.
Myself, reporter Sara O’Kane and camera operator Ryan Andrews spent a night shift with the team to see first hand what life is like on the street and to learn what, if any, solutions can be found to alleviate the issue.
There is an interconnectivity between issues of homelessness, drug use, mental health. As soon as you talk to anyone on the streets you realise this.
We talk to Dee.
Dee has been evicted from his hostel. He’s evasive when asked about his drug use but admits he has a brother on heroin who has been on the streets in Belfast for the last eight years.
Dee says the drug use started for his brother when he lost a child to stillbirth. All that Dee can say of his brother is that he’s now lost too.
‘Brad’ (he wanted us to call him after someone famous) has been on the streets for years.
He does use alcohol and drugs but says he’s been frightened by the amount of people using more than one drug, often using one drug to come down from another and visa versa.
Brad is calculating his housing points and counting down the days until the Housing Executive might give him a home of his own.
He does have grown up family but acknowledges that his lifestyle might not be compatible with theirs.
It’s evident that he’s proud of them and relieved that they haven’t followed his path. This is not insignificant. Many of those suffering from drug addiction are almost second generation at this point with addiction ripping through families.
Every night the Welcome team drive round the streets checking tents, picking up drugs paraphernalia and taking records of each person they speak to so the Housing Executive knows who is on the streets without a home.
It’s a tough job. I asked Alannah about whether she was ever nervous about who she was approaching.
"I was a carer before this so I’m used to tough jobs. It’s just the sheer number which is hard to understand," she tells me.
Outside the Royal Opera House a group of people are sitting on the ground. At first, we wonder if it’s revellers having a pavement picnic but Susan then recognises a couple of them.
Susan knows most people on the street but she says new people do appear all the time.
We wait as she and Alannah go to talk to the group. They are clearly under the influence of something. There’s shouting, smoking, a couple seem chaotic. But one, Andre, confirms that he would like to talk to us.
"I’ve lost four friends in the last few weeks. I only found out about the fourth one today."
Andre is smart. He says he knows more than one language and I don’t doubt it.
He wants to go to college to learn more but he’s not optimistic about his predicament.
"It’s got more dangerous. I’m more likely to be robbed by another homeless person than anyone else."
He also talks about different drugs on the street and how poly drug use has made addicts far more unpredictable.
While I’m talking to him, a licensed taxi pulls up across the street. Andre and one other run over. The driver, a tall man who certainly doesn’t look like a drug courier, hands over something, gets back into his cab and drives off.
Once back across the street, I ask Andre and his friend Billy what had happened.
They confirm that drugs had just been delivered. Billy doesn’t hold back.
"Buying drugs in Belfast is as easy as buying a can of beer."
He goes on to describe how he was present when a friend of his overdosed a few weeks back, a young girl. She was barely out of her teens.
Billy wanted to be a paramedic when he was younger. His friend didn’t come round. She died as she lived….on the streets.
You hear many stories like this when you talk to people, addicts living on the streets.
However, how many of us do that? It’s easier to ignore and walk on by. It strikes me that people like Susan and Alannah act almost like counsellors each evening, listening and talking to people who need so much help but rarely get it.
And you don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to start to find reasons for why each individual has taken this path.
Family trauma, deaths of loved ones, broken homes.
And as politicians and media head scratch looking for solutions, Susan says the solutions are already there.
"The problem is, there’s not enough of them."
The Public Health Agency has a range of services offering support for addiction. To find a service near you visit https://drugsandalcoholni.info/Mental health crisis helpline Lifeline can be contacted on 0808 808 8000.
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