21 March 2011

Is your Drugs Policy fit for purpose?

I've been doing a lot of work lately reviewing organisation drugs policies. Some of these have been big organisations, some small. But a clear issue to emerge is the difficulty organisations still seem to be having in writing their Drugs Policies and the accompanying procedures.
The problems seem to fall in to three main groups:

1: No policy: I remain astonished that so many organisations still don't have drugs policies at all. It's almost fifteen years now since the Wintercomfort trial which saw senior Day Centre staff in Cambridge prosecuted for offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act, and this case should have ensured that every organisation engaging with people who use controlled drugs would have a workable policy in place. But this isn't the case. And the worst offenders? Local Authorities! On numerous training sessions, the social housing providers and day centres tend to have a drugs policy, but the Local Authority staff don't. All too often, the explanation is that the Local Authority has a "zero tolerance" approach to drugs and this is meant to form the basis of the drugs policy. Which leads on to...

2: Unworkable policy: where policy is in place, all too often it is so keen to demonstrate its anti-drug credentials, that it introduces unworkable clauses that are wholly unrealistic. These policies, if implemented, would see Police being called out for any suspicion of drug activity, and empty buildings where transgressors had been evicted. In truth such policies are never adhered to, leaving a void of confusion where staff, managers and residents interpret their policies as they see fit.

3: Mismatched Policies: sometimes, the policy itself is fine - but is at odds with the organisation's stated aims. All too often an organisation which should be working in an accessible and flexible way with homeless drug users has a robsutly zero tolerance policy which drives drug use underground or sees people being evicted - the very people the organisation is seeking to house.

The problems organisations have with their drugs policies are going to be compounded at present by the financial climate and funding cuts. To provide safe, supportive housing in an average sized hostel with people with significant drug related need, higer staffing levels are essential. Realistically three members of staff should be on shift at all times - less than this makes it hard to manage a crisis safely. One member of staff to tend casualty, one to go and summon help and admit emergency services and one to ensure that the rest of the building and residents are safe. Less than this is an accident waiting to happen. And "less than this" will increasingly become the norm.

Low staffing levels are likely to be worsened by under-trained staff. As budgets are slashed,. so is staff training and so organisations are likely to reduce the amount and quality of staff training which leaves both staff and residents at risk.

This is all happening at a time where, as part of the BS (Big Society, but interpret as you see fit), we are likely to see more wholly-volunteer run provision for the growing homeless population - including drop-in provision and nightshelters. While such provision my represent a much-needed response in areas of high need and low provision it brings its own risks. The well-meaning, but undertrained and under-resourced provision can become unsafe. Again, it is imperative that such provisionhas suitable training and policy in place so that it can run both safely and lawfully. The spectre of Wintercomfort hangs over provision that fails to do so.

There is one more factor that may drive some organisations towards ill-considered and mismatched policies. This is the increasingly common elision of "recovery" and "abstinence" and the proposal in the new Government drug strategy that housing provision for drug users should, along with treatment providers, increasingly receive payment by results.

The need for suitable and stable housing, with appropriate support, represents a critical aspect of the recovery journey. A lack of housing, or the wrong housing can make it much harder for people to start and sustain the process of change. BUT, and it's a big but, refusing housing to people who are not yet abstinent, or returning people to homelessness when they lapse is not beneficial.

Let's be clear: there is a need for housing which is wholly drug free and has minimal tolerance to drugs. This housing is urgently needed for people who are in recovery and abstinent and are striving to remain so. In such cases a minimal tolerance drugs policy would be wholly in accordance with the organisations aims. But where the primary aim is to provide housing to people who are homeless, and who may also use drugs, such a policy is misplaced. Organisations can and should support and nurture and aspire to the prospect of change and as this happens move people in to appropriate housing. But to use the threat of eviction to stimulate the process of changed hasn't been demonstrated to work. It just drives use underground, increases overdoses and hampers honest dialogue regarding use.

Given all these challenges and problems besetting housing providers working with drug users, it seems an opportune moment for us to relaunch the Sample Drugs Policy - a document that was originally written after the Wintercomfort Trial and has been revised regularly since then. This version - the seventh - is substantially rewritten with a longer introduction about how to develop a drugs policy. There are some more extensive procedures and flowcharts to help understand how to implement policy.

This version of the Policy is unashamedly a "high tolerance" model, aimed at organisations working with ongoing users. It will shortly be joined by other models - a moderate tolerance, low tolerance, and minimal tolerance version for use in different settings.

The development of this version has been much assisted by Homeless Link, and by Stoke On Trent Supporting People, without whom this revision wouldn't have seen the light of day.

The Sample Drugs Policy 2011 can be downloaded here

20 March 2011

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses: just not in Westminster

Throughout mythology and folk tales, a tried and tested method for Gods and Kings to test the state of their kingdom was to don the rags of a beggar and walk the streets to see if the great and the good were indeed so great or good.

Were a latter-day deity or monarch to pitch up in Westminster, then far from hoping to get fed and tended, they may well in the future fall foul of a Council by-law which would make it an offence to give food to the hungry or for the tired or sick to lie down.

Similarly, if the sermon on the mount were relocated outside Westminster Cathedral, the redistribution of fishes and bread would be a fine on conviction.

It would be hard to miss the proposals from Westminster City Council to criminalise the distribution of food and lieing down or sleeping in an area of Westminster.

The Council's website describes this as a move "backed by Homeless Charities" and the text on the website focusses on the issue of Soup Runs, asserting that the soup runs turn the area "into a no-go area for many residents and businesses with issues around litter, urination, violence and disorder."

Few people would disagree that there has been a long-standing need to ensure that any agencies distributing free food are well co-ordinated and take responsibility for ensuring that mess is cleared up afterwards. This concern is nothing new and the same discussions were taking place back as far as the early 90s when Homeless Network attempted to provide some coordination amongst the soup-run providers.

But the proposals from Westminster Council go far beyond criminalising the distribution of food. They prohibit lieing down or sleeping in the public places covered by the order - making it an offence to "lie down or sleep in or on any public place."

If the legislation is passed - and at present it is only the subject of consultation - anyone distributing refreshment or lieing down in the designated area would comit an offence and could be fined.

When the Council asserts that this move is "backed by Homeless Charities" it is hard to find a queue of them supporting the measure. St Mungos for example fall far short of backing the measure and instead state that they do not support the proposed ban on rough sleeping.

The main cheerleader for the measure in the voluntary sector seems to be Thamesreach whose Chief Executive Jeremy Swain is quoted on the Westminster Council website as saying: 
"The Westminster cathedral piazza and surrounding area has been the focus for soup run activity and rough sleeping for many years and this has inevitably had a detrimental impact on the lives of people living and working in the immediate vicinity.
“It is reasonable that the council should seek to introduce a bye-law covering this specific area whilst at the same time continuing to commit resources towards ending rough sleeping in the borough."

It is not clear from this statement if Mr. Swain is endorsing both the criminalisation of soup runs and the further criminalisation of rough sleeping. So far he has not deigned to cover the issue in his Blog. In the Guardian he is quoted as defending the proposal, but with the caveat "This is not a borough-wide ban, which I would oppose." We look forward to Mr Swain joining the protests when such a borough-wide extension takes place as it surely will if this initial bye-law is passed.

Nor is it entirely clear how fining people who sleep rough helps anyone. Unable to pay fines, people will be required to beg more or face short prison sentences for unpaid fines - which will simply eat in to Police and court time and increase the isolation and stigma faced by people who are homeless or vulnerably housed.

But in truth there are others whose stated stance (or lack thereof)  in relation to this legislation is more craven. Of these the most notable must be Westminster Cathedral. The deafening silence from this quarter, other than to lament:
"Of those homeless people who congregate in the area, there is a minority of hard drinkers and drug takers who cause residents and visitors distress, which I have witnessed and been told about," a Westminster cathedral representative told the council. "During the day they can often be seen in groups of up to 15, and this can dramatically increase in the evenings with the soup runs."

Given such an abandonment of the poor and huddled masses of South Westminster, it is hard to read the Westminster Cathedral website without astonishment at the hypocrisy therein.

In the news section, Father Witon happily burbles: 
"CAFOD believes that all human beings have a right to dignity and respect, and that the world's resources are a gift to be shared equally by all men and women, whatever their race, nationality or religion”.
One of the saints said: “the best place to keep your money safe is in the stomachs of the poor”. It is in this spirit that we are all invited to be generous with those who can never say that they have too much on their plate

Clearly this sentiment doesn't extend to the poor of South Westminster.

This is perhaps where localism and the Big Society have their first head-on clash: the Big Society expects people to give their time and their energy to take on rolls which the state is increasingly unable or unwilling to fund - like care of the poor and the homeless. But on a local basis residents and businesses want to see action against the same poor and the homeless. And it seems that when it comes to South Westminster, localism trumps Big Society.

In truth the legislation as it currently stands is probably unworkable - and certainly would end up being enforced in a partial and selective manner. There are some exemptions proposed in the legislation: so for example sporting events would be exempt, which will be a relief to marathon runners. And while it will be an offence to give people who are starving food, it will remain acceptable to give out promotional nibbles to encourage people to eat in local premises. Heaven's forbid local businesses should be further inconvenienced! But in the event of a Police kettling operation, they wouldn't be able to give out water to people. And as an aside, the right to peaceful protest would be curtailed by this legislation as lieing down - as a form of protest for example - would be illegal under this legislation. 

But beyond these legal concerns and the attitudes of Jeremy Swain and The Westminster Cathedral there is a bigger issue here - and that is the ongoing and accelerated cleansing of the poor and homeless from the streets of the Capital. A process that has included the introduction of ASBOs, the hosing down of rough sleepers and sleeping spots by Council street cleaners, the deliberate under-counting strategies endorsed by the Rough Sleepers Unit and now culminating in a proposal to make such the act of sleeping rough an offence.

The idea that this will be restricted to one area of Westminster seems naive. Should this piece of legislation be successful, then a rapid extension across Westminster is inevitable. And then, in the run up to the Olympics, seeing am extension to other London Boroughs as the City is cleansed for the marketing jamboree of the Olympics. Westminster proposes, Boris disposes and streets cleared of "huddled masses" for a tourist-friendly Olympics.

Consultation on the proposed legislation closes on the 25th March 2011.