I work in a day centre with homeless people.
Many of the people who use the centre misuse drugs. Following the
Wintercomfort case, I’m worried about the situation this places me
in – I don’t want to be arrested for doing my job. What should I
While there are clearly lessons to be learned
from the Wintercomfort case, we should not get distracted by the
facts of the case and there is certainly no need for panic.
The circumstances at Wintercomfort were unique
– the result of a combination of events which could have been
avoided. There are in excess of 600 day centres across the UK,
helping hundreds of people every day, many of whom will be misusing
drugs, and this is the first time a prosecution of this nature has
Wintercomfort was a tragic case. Ruthless drug
dealers targeted the project resulting in the loss of life in and
around the centre. Two workers spent time in prison.
The only positive we can hope for is that we
learn from the failures at the centre and ensure that a prosecution
of this type never happens again.
Most importantly, we must not stop working
with homeless drug misusers. This is why the rough sleepers unit
have worked with Drugscope to provide advice to projects working
with homeless people who misuse drugs. The Wintercomfort case need
never happen again. But we must confront the realities of what
happened there and follow some basic ground rules:
– Drug dealers prey on vulnerable homeless
people and target the projects they use. To protect their clients,
agencies must develop robust drug policies and procedures and apply
– Make sure everyone knows what your policies
are, including users.
– Confidentiality policies are not above the
law. They should never be a reason to excuse, to permit or to turn
a blind eye to illegal drug dealing. Staff must not hide behind
paper policies or their management committee. They have to act if
the law is being broken and contact the police.
– Staff should be fully equipped to work with
drug misusers. They should have a working understanding of section
8 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1981 and they should be able to
recognise the signs associated with drug misuse, including overdose
and withdrawal. Work with the local drug action teams to develop
good policy and practice.
– Agencies that operate as a drop-in service
see new faces each and every day. But the agency should take steps
to monitor new arrivals. Who are they? What are their needs? If you
have suspicions, act on them.
– Maintain effective relationships with the
police. Adopt a protocol with local police on dealing with
drug-related incidents. If an incident occurs the police must
decide what action to take.
– Be pro-active at all levels. Do not just
write a drugs policy – implement it. Management committees must
take the role of a critical friend. Ensure that staff and
volunteers are encouraged to speak openly about their concerns –
“whistle blowers” can save lives. Agencies should be pro-active in
the management of their local environment. If drug dealing occurs
on the doorstep, the agency has a responsibility to deal with
The rough sleepers unit has funded Drug-scope
to set up a homelessness and drugs unit to give advice and guidance
to staff working with homeless drug users.
This is not rocket science and it is nothing
new. Projects across the country successfully implement drug
policies each and every day. We must focus on developing policies
that protect staff and keep the drug dealers out. Above all else we
must be determined to continue working within the law to help
homeless people who misuse drugs.
– Drugscope have produced two good
practice guides, Homelessness and Drugs: Managing Incidents and
Homelessness and Drugs: Access to Drug Treatment. Available
from Drugscope on 020 7928 1211 or
Ian Brady is assistant director of the
rough sleepers unit.