On Thursday of last week my colleague and I had the opportunity to do a Donor Tour at Riverbank, which is the home of Merchants Quay Ireland, the outreach and support service for homeless people and drug users in Ireland. On the second Thursday of every month, after their early-morning rough-sleepers have come and gone from breakfast, their staff and volunteers have a training meeting. This proves to be an ideal time for others who work there to bring some guided tours of benefactors around the premises. The tour gives them an opportunity to see first-hand how their donations work to bring hope and relief to the hungry and homeless.
As we entered we were given a warm welcome by Deirdre and from the reception, we moved into the common area, where the drop-in day centre is held. This is where at 7:30 am the porridge, eggs, toast and tea are served to those who have been sleeping on the streets. Now we have coffee and biscuits while our group listen to a little introductory talk from Emma.
This is followed by another talk from Zoë, the mental health nurse who works there five days a week. The day centre offers a wide range of services and facilities for people. These include showers, a doctor, a nurse (as well as Zoë), a dentist, a needle exchange, hot meals, therapy and counselling classes. MQI is often the first place homeless people living with addiction turn, and we cannot overestimate its importance for those who have no medical cards or access to primary care.
As we set off on our tour, led by Deirdre I was first struck by how airy and bright the building is and there is indeed a positive feel to the whole environment. The present premises houses all the facilities under one roof and their aim is to provide a pathway out of homelessness. As a means towards achieving this for their clients they have implemented different recovery programmes and dedicated one-on-one social workers.
Their Night Café has yoga mats for up to 65 people to sleep on each night who have not been able to source a place to stay. There are sleeping areas upstairs and downstairs and 2 of the dedicated staff remain in each room to make sure everyone is safe. At 7 am, the night clients leave and half an hour later the Centre opens and another day begins.
Before going upstairs we were brought into the kitchen area where all the steel fittings are given a thorough clean out, also on Thursdays. Over 100,000 meals are served there over the course of a year. MQI is the only place in Dublin where people can get a hot roast meal on a Sunday so the kitchen is a very busy place indeed. They link in with Food Cloud, a group that gets food from supermarkets, which is not exactly out of date, but may only have two days or so left of shelf life. This was encouraging to hear as so much food is wasted. Every day in restaurants you see plates full of uneaten food being taken away when the tables are cleared.
Upstairs is the command centre of the building where the Health Promotion Unit is located. This is where the dentist, needle exchange units, doctors, nurses and other health services are based. The HPU provides people who use drugs with information about the risks associated with drug use and the ways to minimise such risks. It also offers a pathway into treatment.
The Mental health team come in at 7 am and link in with the people who stayed in the Night Café. They try to explore ways other than medicine e.g. Mindfulness, Meditation, Anger Management and Art. One morning a week a women’s clinic is held and on another an acupuncture one. The day is spent introducing new people to the services on offer at the centre, and linking in with other places (one being St James’ Hospital) and organisations to make sure clients are being cared for.
The needle exchange service has helped in harm reduction such as overdosing and the spread of hepatitis. Users are encouraged to bring in their used needles to be disposed of, which not only keeps the streets clean, but also prevents any potential harm being caused to children. Using dirty needles can cause infected abscesses in the legs. While in the past heroin was the drug mostly in use a newer one, SnowBlow (also known as mephedrone) causes infected track marks on the arm and is in many ways more dangerous. Such substances can cause a serious deterioration in people’s physical and mental health.
Deirdre showed us the shower stalls where rough-sleepers get warm and clean under a hot shower and the dental surgery where she pointed out the dental chair donated in memory of the donor’s aunt. It struck me forcibly, as her talk continued, how much we take for granted in our daily lives. Not only do the homeless not have phones they also have no address. At MQI there is a room where they are able to make calls and they can give Riverbank as their address. As Deirdre explained quite a few would have family members who might want to contact them.
Just like many charities working to support the thousands of homeless people in Ireland, merchants Quay is a big operation. As well as the day centre, it has long-term rehabilitation and detox centres in Carlow, which includes St Frances’ Farm. The High Park Residential Rehabilitation in Drumcondra which is a 14 week fully residential Programme which offers clients a period of residential rehabilitations treatment is a drug and alcohol free environment.
My friend and I had lots to talk about when we left Riverbank after the tour. She said one of the things that struck her was the fact that some people who attend MQI are actually employed, but cannot afford to pay for accommodation. This is another aspect of the Housing Crisis which might not at first be obvious. Being an animal lover I was very moved by the fact that the D.S.P.C.A. come in on Friday mornings to give help and advice to the homeless who have dogs.
The St Martin Apostolate is very happy to be helping with the wonderful work that MQI does and it was a real learning experience to have spent such a worthwhile morning at Riverbank.