Hostel that serves up cold turkey warm

St George's Hostel residents

A project has won an award for its approach of treating hardened drug users with honesty and acceptance by allowing them to continue using drug use.

The King George’s hostel in Westminster, run by English Churches Housing Group, scooped first prize at the Chartered Institute of Housing awards last week, while ECHG picked up an outstanding achievement award.

Based in a 1920s hostel in the backstreets of Victoria, King George’s houses 68 men in self-contained clusters of flats based on their needs – drugs, alcohol or mental health problems – and their progress through the programme, starting with a compulsory six-week harm reduction course called the Gateway.

ECHG specialises in working with those with the most complex problems, those that have been serially excluded or found themselves suffering the ‘revolving door syndrome’ of being bounced from provider to provider without improvement.

Despite this, there are no bars on the windows, no airlock doors and reception staff are not cocooned behind safety glass.

King George’s builds on the success of an ECHG-run wet hostel for alcoholics in Derby, another Institute of Housing award winner, taking the same approach of talking frankly and honestly with addicts about their problems in order that they can be treated from the outset, while working at reducing drug use.

Project director Stephen Davies said: “We have a twofold approach: setting up a structure with the police, hostels and support workers for the clients, while accepting that abstinence in the short term is unrealistic, instead teaching harm reduction measures. We’ve not had an overdose in the two years since Gateway started.”

Working closely with Westminster police, the project uses a loophole in the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 which, while forbidding landlords to “permit or suffer the use of” opiates and cannabis on the premises, makes no mention of cocaine.

The use of crack cocaine in resident’s rooms is tolerated, though it does not go unchallenged. “Using drugs in the building means they are not using them out on the streets. It’s reduced crime and antisocial behaviour. They have access to a needle exchange and the help they need here,” Davies explained.

For users with the most chaotic, destructive lives, King George’s gives them an opportunity to eat better, live better, stay safer in their use of drugs and, ultimately, fight their addictions. The hostel’s needle exchange has a return rate of over 100 per cent – sharps are even brought in for safe disposal from elsewhere – and the residents have a near-100 per cent screening rate for TB and other blood-borne diseases.

One resident, 39-year-old Taff from Cardiff, had been a heroin user for 20 years, but reduced his methadone usage from 120ml to 30ml since entering King George’s. He has started training with British Military Fitness and has run three charity runs in the last few months.

“It feels great. I couldn’t run 100 meters when I came here,” he laughed. “Now I can outrun the Old Bill. I’ve changed so much since I got here.”

The cluster system works well, he added. “You get a single support staff for each cluster, they know your problems and what you’re like, and they’re only dealing with a few of you so you can see them if you need to, unlike in other places.”

Rodriguez, 31, from Portugal and a resident for four years, said: “Some people look at the homeless and say, we’re just filthy junkies. But we’ve got problems. When I see fat people, who say they can’t lose weight, I think, just stop eating. But the fact is they’ve got problems too, like us. To be honest, I wish I’d never met drugs in my life.”

Rodriguez, a former carpenter, works as the handyman in the hostel, keeping busy by fixing and mending.

“It’s about finding that spark of interest to move someone onto work or training, any interest to fill the gap that drugs have filled, whether its gardening, DIY, sport – anything,” Davies said.

Banning drugs and alcohol outright, as in almost all other hostels, does not ultimately help users, Davies said, as breaking rules leads to expulsion from the hostel – back onto the streets, possibly back towards crime and antisocial behaviour and away from the help they need.

Davies said the approach was “very effective. It sounds obvious, but most hostels don’t work with drug users, and few if any allow drugs on the premises.

“For many of our guys abstinence is a long way off, but by teaching harm reduction they have moved from heavy to light use, from injecting to smoking. The path from harm reduction to abstinence is a rocky road which we try to help people along, but it’s not a journey we can hope to make unless we are honest about it.”


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue, December 2008]


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