Addicts offered way out of drugs scourge
As the volume of drugs and the varieties available in Northern Ireland continues to grow, BBC Newsline's Maryann Maguire reports on a team working behind the scenes, trying to draw out those who keep their addictions a secret and suffer in silence.
Heroin is the most frequently reported drug
While many drug addicts try to keep their habit hidden, Michael Foley makes it his business to try and find them and offer them a way out.
It is hard and, at times, grim work. Far from scouring the sanitised waiting rooms of GPs, Michael works in the streets, in coffee shops, out of people's homes and wherever people feel most comfortable about meeting.
His clients are heroin, crack cocaine and other hard drug users - he is one of a team of four people who form the South Belfast Community Addictions team.
This type of outreach work takes him from the leafy avenues off the Malone Road to run down areas in the east of the city.
"You'll find people injecting heroin or smoking cocaine in every part of Belfast. Drugs are not something that are limited to certain areas", he said.
"Of course, we work with people who are unemployed because they are too ill to work."
"But we also work with people who have good jobs - nurses, social workers, doctors or even lawyers."
'Criminal and paramilitary gangs'
According to the Northern Ireland drug addiction register, last December 230 people came forward to seek help with an addiction.
Seven out of 10 were men and 40% of them were under the age of 30.
Heroin is the most frequently reported drug, used by 70% of addicts, with methadone and cocaine the next most commonly reported substances.
Much of Michael Foley's work brings him to the Botanic area, which is where most people in Belfast get drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine from drug pushers who work for criminal and paramilitary gangs.
"In Northern Ireland, people are much more guarded about their drug habit than say, in England - this makes it sometimes difficult," he said.
"What we do is try and reach out to people to try and offer them solutions. This isn't about preaching, telling people what is right or wrong.
"This is about giving people choices and offering information and support so that they can help themselves and stop harming themselves."
His team operate a mobile phone system, which means that someone can be reached at any time.
His clients have a mobile phone number and Michael or someone from the team can meet them, if necessary, at the drop of a hat.
'Fear coming forward'
The South Belfast Community Addictions Team is one of 12 across Northern Ireland set up to make services more available to drug addicts.
Two years ago, the team expanded to bring on someone who works exclusively with women.
"Women face very specific issues", said Sheila McEntee, another member of the team.
The perception that women should just stay home, rear children and therefore don't take drugs just doesn't stand up."
According to her, most women fear coming forward for help because they fear they will have their children taken off them.
"Most women are scared that people will think they are bad mothers because they take drugs," said Sheila.
Speaking to another woman can also make things much easier for some addicts.
"Often women who use drugs are surrounded by men. It is men who supply their drugs, who help them inject themselves and sometimes who exploit them in the sex trade because of their habit," she said.
Her work brings her in regular contact with people who have turned to prostitution to feed their habit.
"Often you find that people who turn to drugs have been abused as children and have never had a chance to get proper help," she added.
The number of people presenting to services for help with a heroin or cocaine addiction is growing. But so too is the volume of drugs available on the streets.
Last year, the police service seized 15.2% more drugs than the previous year. For many anti-drug activists, this figure is only the tip of the iceberg.
The nature of the drugs trade and the growing supply of substances available in Northern Ireland is a growing challenge for Michael Foley, Sheila McEntee and the rest of their team.
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