15th Apr 2020 in Business

There’s a million different ways, and a million different stories of how somebody ended up there


Iain Cameron of Extern’s Drug Accommodation Support Project sees face-to-face the people on Belfast’s streets who face the dual challenges of homelessness and addiction.
But contrary to the clichés perpetuated he knows all too well that there is no one reason why someone ends up at their lowest ebb.

Iain said: “People always ask me, ‘Tell me the story of how somebody ends up there. How does somebody end up there?’ You can’t.

“There’s a million different ways, and a million different stories of how somebody ended up there.
“Everything from, they made one wrong decision at a party one night and took one drug, and it just went from there, to they were sexually abused as a child and went through the care system and have nobody.”

Iain has personal experience that makes him determined to provide support and help.

“I’ve done it, and it’s not nice,” he explained. “And to have to put yourself in that position where you’re vulnerable, sitting on the street, asking people for money to survive and you’re doing that daily, that literally affects your own wellbeing, your internal psyche of you as a person, and you just feel worthless.

“It’s not like you’re out doing a good job and you come home at night and you think, you have achieved something and you can boost your self-confidence and how you feel about yourself. It’s exactly the opposite.”

Iain explained that there is no set path that leads people to their lowest.

“We also need to remember, 90% of people who use drugs or alcohol during their teenage or early 20s will grow and mature out of it and move on,” he said. “There’s a small proportion of people who end up with these issues, and it’s a chicken and egg scenario. Did they start using drugs because they had these issues, or do they now have the issues because they use drugs and alcohol? It’s everything.”

Working across Belfast, and with focus on Cathedral Quarter, Iain – fondly known as Buff to his colleagues – knows that it doesn’t matter the previous background of a person on the streets.

“I’ve worked with literally top barristers, who had got themselves strung out on cocaine or heroin, right down to kids who have been in care that started with nothing, and everything in between. You just don’t know what’s in front of you.”

Extern’s services range across a number of different areas. The service Iain coordinates supports active drug users in moving from the streets into stable supported accommodation and addiction treatment, in partnership with a range of agencies.

The support can range from accessing substitution treatment, health, housing, benefits legal issues and training.

But the interventions can also be more dramatic.

“We got a call recently, a young woman had overdosed in a coffee shop in Belfast and we had to administer naloxone [a drug that reverses heroin overdose for a short period] and do CPR, bringing her back to life, essentially.”

But the tragedy is more acute for all involved at Extern and beyond.

“While I was bouncing up and down on that girl’s chest yesterday, we had staff at a funeral of somebody else that didn’t make it, and that’s where we’re at.”

And, it is a younger demographic that is presenting.

“We’re starting to see, in terms of needle exchange service, a younger profile of people coming though,” Iain said. “In the past, it would have been normally 25 to 35 year olds that were engaged in that, now we’re seeing 18, 19, 20 year olds.”

Ian believes that this has been the types of problem faced across the city for a long time.
“This is the Belfast that we live in,” he said. “These problems and issues have been part of the city now, for a number of years. It just didn’t happen whenever we arrived. We’re in the Cathedral Quarter because we are needed.

“This is the area where we would have removed most of the injecting equipment from, but I’m glad to say, that has reduced significantly, that’s not to say it won’t increase again in the future.
“We always generally see an increase in the summer months. But again, those relationships are made with the clients, and we hope that we’ll have a positive impact.”

The Extern team works across a number of different areas but Ian believes that more cross-agency discussion is helping.

“We have a really good working relationship now, going with Belfast City Council, PSNI City Beat, the Welcome Centre have all done it, the ambulance service amongst others.

“If you’d have sat me down three or four years ago and told me that I would have been sitting in the room with the ambulance and PSNI and openly sharing information about drug use and what’s going on.

“Everybody understands everybody else’s needs around the table, and it’s just all of us are so under-resourced.”

While he praises the PSNI City Beat scheme that has officers patrolling Cathedral Quarter amongst other areas he believes that the police and other crucial agencies are massively under-resourced given the scale of the problem.

Given the homeless issue Iain is also acutely aware that the perception of many is still affecting those in need.

“They are seen as disease carriers, especially at this time and they already feel dirty,” Iain explained. “For every person that hands somebody 50p or a pound, there’s another person that whenever they walk past, they spit on them, or call them scumbags, or junkie b*st*rds, or whatever.
“When you’re constantly having that reinforced on a daily basis, your own self-worth plummets.”

Ian is also asked on a regular basis what people can do.

“I don’t want to encourage more groups out on the street that are giving out food and clothes, because people take it,” he said. “You get to know these guys. We’re all trained, we work with police, so we know peoples’ criminal histories, criminal background or offenses, we know the rights and wrongs and all the rest of it, and you just have to be careful how you manage that.”

However, Iain believes that with improved coordination people or organisations can help.
As well as the crisis interventions and the support services Extern is also supporting businesses in dealing with homelessness and addiction including when a business is faced with it directly.

“We know most of the guys who are out and about, and we can go in and say, ‘Look, you’ve been in and out of this particular restaurant and management have contacted us, it’s creating problems, is there any chance you can stay out of there?’ And quite often the clients will be responsive to that. Some will, some won’t.”

Iain encourages any business to get in touch.

“It’s always worth having a conversation and we are more than happy to go around and meet with people, and chat with you.

“We have also organised a few events where we can come out and speak to a lot of businesses at one time to help them with their business, have seminars and things like that. We have an open-door policy and by all means, if there’s any way that we can help reduce any drug and alcohol related issues, or homeless related issues that businesses are having, that’s always worth having a conversation.”

You can find further information at www.extern.org.

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