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DARK PLACE Former heroin addict who devotes days to helping users warns crisis is spiralling out of control

'I've witnessed people whose lips are blue, no heartbeat, no pulse and as soon as you inject them they are back, in some cases you are effectively bringing them back from the dead'    

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James spends hours picking up discarded drug paraphernalia

James spends hours picking up discarded drug paraphernalia

James spends hours picking up discarded drug paraphernalia

Former heroin addict James O'Leary patrols the streets of Belfast looking for addicts in need of help.

The one-time chronic addict has teamed up with Rab's Homeless, a non-funded support group that has expanded its help for people in the city addicted to drugs.

Offering clean needles and collecting used syringes is just one aspect of the tough job they volunteer to do every day.

The numbers needing help is spiraling out of control.

James himself knew 69 people who lost their lives to drugs since living rough and is now helping those who are in the same dark place he was once in.

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James O'Leary

James O'Leary

James O'Leary

 

"It's bad and it's getting worse and no one seems to be doing anything to help or stop it. I can tell by taking one look at a person and know exactly what they have taken because of my own personal experience. I know what is the best way to help them because I've been there too," James O'Leary told the Sunday World.

"Now if they can't get heroin then they inject coke, or worse, spice into their groins. Last counting, I knew 69 people that died of an overdose and I believe all those deaths could have been prevented. It's frightening what is happening here in broad daylight."

James, who spent three months in a coma after overdosing on heroin, is lucky not to be one of those shocking numbers.

Clean for the past two years, he says he is now strong enough to help others. Saving just one life means all his hard work will have paid off.

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Addicts taking drugs in broad daylight in Writer’s Square in downtown Belfast

Addicts taking drugs in broad daylight in Writer’s Square in downtown Belfast

Addicts taking drugs in broad daylight in Writer’s Square in downtown Belfast

 

James and Rab's Homeless founder Rab Maginnis are making a difference.

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Now a team of 15, they are all specially trained in how to administer Naloxone, a medicine injected to people who have overdosed, keeping them alive until medics arrive.

"There are lots of overdoses now, more than I can remember when I was on the streets. All of us (the Rab's Homeless team) have been trained how to and when to inject Naloxone.

"I've witnessed people whose lips are blue, no heartbeat, no pulse and as soon as you inject them they are back, in some cases you are effectively bringing them back from the dead.

"Some of them can get really aggressive because to them you have spoiled their hit but that's with the others, not with me because they all know me, we all know each other and they know I was homeless and I was a heroin addict too," James said.

He spent five long years living rough addicted to smack before he finally got the help he needed.

"Most of the people we talk to want help but let's be honest here, there is none. In Dublin you can walk of the street into clinics, which is what I did, to get help and you get it straight away. Here you're told someone will see you in three weeks if you are lucky. That's too late for some.

"Two weeks ago a young lad, on spice, jumped from the fourth floor of the car park and there wasn't a word about that. He was suicidal but whatever help there is, it was too late for him. If he asked for help he would have been told to come back next month or something.

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James O’Leary and Rab Maginnis in the Cathedral Quarter

James O’Leary and Rab Maginnis in the Cathedral Quarter

James O’Leary and Rab Maginnis in the Cathedral Quarter

 

"It makes me so angry and frustrated. The services here are letting every homeless person down and they are letting those with addictions down even more. They are extremely vulnerable, and the services have a duty of care to all of them."

As well as the team providing hygiene packs, food and clean needles by night, James and Rab spend every day in Belfast city centre picking up needles and keeping an eye out for overdoses in areas frequented by users.

Last Wednesday lunchtime, outside the front door of the Police Ombudsman's office in Belfast, the Sunday World witnessed young men openly taking hits as office workers walked past on their lunch break.

With St Anne's Cathedral in the backdrop, they are injecting before passing out. People walked past them, careful to avoid eye contact.

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Rab Maginnis, who was also homeless, says this is now a common occurrence in public places - nothing surprises him any more.

"They don't even attempt to hide what they're doing, they just throw their needles to the ground for anyone to find. Writer's Square is used by families, tourists and children. When I was collecting needles the other day there was a couple of teenage girls lying on the grass in the sun," said Rab.

"I had to go over and tell them to get up and not to do that again. They asked me why and I told them that there was needles lying around and the last thing they needed was to be pricked by one of them. Could you imagine the turmoil for them if that happened?"

Rab cannot believe the online support his team has received - so far they have helped thousands of homeless and impoverished people during the pandemic but he needs to do more.

"Yes I have helped people and yes we have saved lives but that's not enough. My goal is to get a hostel that will help homeless addicts where there is a programme in place where they can get clean and then an aftercare package so they can adapt back into society.

"In my ideal world their housing needs would be met and there would be a floating support team to help them with everyday things.

"I know what it's like, you don't know how to turn the electric on, get gas. Most of the ones I know don't even know how to turn an oven on never mind cook. They will need to be shown how to get on their feet," he explained.

Both Rab and James are in agreement that something needs to be done with, the PSNI, Housing Executive and the Welcome Centre facing criticism.

James (32) said: "The services that should care don't care enough for the homeless and the addicts. We all need to come together and see what we can do collectively to sort this out before more and more die on the streets.

"Local councillors, the police, the ambulance service and support services all need to do more. They have a duty of care but to me it's as if they don't care, something has to be done."

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