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Homeless charity provides 73,000 meals per year

A leading homeless and drugs charity provided 73,000 meals to people last year, a rise of 9,000 on 2010, as the "devastating effects" of the recession deepens.

In its annual review for 2011, Merchants Quay Ireland (MQI) said the Government’s austerity measures were hitting the "most vulnerable" hard.

The increase in meal provision in 2011 was 14% higher than 2010, but represents a 60% hike on 2009.

The report said greater numbers of homeless people were in need of medical help, with a 21% jump in demand for free GP services.

It warns that while there had been a slight decrease in the number of intravenous drug users attending its services in Dublin, it had continued to rise outside the capital.

"The devastating effects of the economic downturn can clearly be seen in the numbers turning to MQI’s homeless and drug services nationwide," said chief executive Tony Geoghegan.

"These figures are evidence of the ongoing impact of the economic recession — and the Government’s austerity measures aimed on the most vulnerable."

According to the review:

* About 73,000 meals were provided by the charity in 2011, compared to 63,000 in 2010 and 45,700 in 2009;

* 9,250 "supportive interventions" — accommodation referrals, social work services, medical care — were provided to homeless people, up 17% on last year;

* 1,054 free consultations were provided by GPs, a rise of 21% on 2010;

* 4,051 drug users accessed the Dublin needle exchange service, with 492 new clients, while services in its Midlands operation rose to 4,000 interventions

Mr Geoghegan said that despite MQI opening a detox facility at its therapeutic centre in Carlow, there were still only 50 such beds in the country, for an estimated 10,000 people on methadone, the heroin substitute.

To address the rising demand for its services, he said MQI would open a homeless centre in Dublin this autumn and is providing services, including counselling services in prisons, in 11 counties.

"As in the 1980s where high levels of unem-ployment fed the drugs crisis and rising poverty led to higher levels of homelessness, we are seeing history repeat itself," said Mr Geoghegan.

"Today, MQI is on the front line for society’s homeless and hungry providing basic meals and healthcare daily for some of Ireland’s most needy. The growth in demand shows no sign of abating, while similarly our drugs services nationally are stretched to capacity as the drugs crisis grows across the country.

"In times of economic crisis it is the weakest and most vulnerable who suffer most. We as a society need to learn from past mistakes and address these interlinked crises and invest in long-term solutions for the benefit of the individual, their families, and society as a whole."

The report shows that one third of the people accessing its homeless services were foreign nationals, mainly Eastern European, the bulk of them Polish.

The report said the slight drop in numbers accessing MQI’s needle exchange services could be due to a drop in Jan 2011, at the tail end of a heroin drought which hit Dublin.