Social Care Today recently visited Roundabout, a youth homeless charity in Sheffield working to help people out of the cycle of addiction and into secure housing.
Roundabout has been operating in the city for over 40 years and they’ve seen trends in street drug use come and go.
But the rise of spice over the past few years has shocked even the most experienced staff at the charity.
Smoked like a cannabis joint or via a pipe, it’s cheap, potent and incredibly effective at blocking out the underlying trauma that many of Sheffield’s homeless have experienced.
And according to Roundabout support workers Debbie and Paul, as young people get into the cycle of addiction, all the things that come with using drugs and being on the streets becomes another trauma, adding to the cycle.
‘Spice takes away the memories and the pain, the feeling of not being loved by family,’ says Debbie, who works on the front line helping Sheffield’s young homeless into housing.
‘It’s dog-eat-dog on the streets,’ she adds. ‘Even homeless people are quite ruthless and they’ll steal off each other. The public will also spit or urinate on people, kick them and punch them.’
Until the government introduced the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016, Spice was legal and could even be bought in local corner shops and garages. But by the time the ban came in the genie was out of the bottle, and many people living on the streets in Sheffield were already hooked.
A rudimentary process
Producing spice is a rudimentary process. Dealers will lay leaves from trees on a sheet of tarpaulin, cover it with acetone, a chemical found in nail varnish, and leave it to dry. It’s then pre-rolled into joints, which can be bought for as little as 50p.
Paul, who has worked for Roundabout since 2002, says the strength of spice has increased massively since it was criminalised. It means many young people have a misconception that they are smoking something much weaker, like a regular cannabis spliff, which has very different effects.
Paul says many of Sheffield’s older rough sleepers won’t go near it, either, because they have seen what is happening with the younger people.
‘You can tell when its good in Sheffield because people are laying on the floor,’ he says.
‘It’s a lot stronger now and it literally gets them completely wasted. This stuff wipes them out.
‘It’s as far away from cannabis as we are from New York. It’s nothing like it. Strengths can differ and it’s highly addictive,’ he adds.
‘Many young people don’t know what they are smoking and they think they’re getting stoned. You see people in a zombie-like state in the city centre.’
Roundabout has pioneered the Housing First model, which offers permanent housing as quickly as possible for people experiencing homelessness, and then provides the support services needed to keep them in their housing and avoid returning to homelessness.
They work with around 250 young people every day, but for people with addictions, putting a roof over someone’s head is just a small piece of the jigsaw, as a home environment has its own challenges.
‘They’re in there with their own heads and memories and thoughts,’ says Debbie. ‘It’s a constant ongoing battle If you’re replaying trauma.’
The withdrawal is also nasty and can include chronic stomach pain and coughing up blood, she adds.
And with dealers targetting vulnerable young people who live on the streets, knowing that it is easy cash, it’s unlikely that anything can be done to protect from the predatory dealers.
‘When I’m out [with young people], so many dealers will come up to them and say “Do you want out”?’
‘There’s always one to fit in when someone moves on or goes to prison, too. If the police were to take someone off the street, they’d be someone else replacing them in a couple of days, if not the same day.’
Beg, score, use
The majority of Sheffield’s young homeless are born and bred in the city. So whilst begging they might see familiar faces such as an old teacher or childhood friend, which adds to the shame and can make it harder for them to stop taking drugs.
Roundabout has seen many success stories, where people have stopped smoking spice in the city centre and moved into accommodation, showing others that it can be done.
But once in housing and away from regular drug-taking, they often require support for mental health issues that have only previously been dealt with through spice.
‘Everybody has to do it at their own pace,’ says Paul. ‘With the best will of the world, we can help, but they’ve still got to come with us and feel like they will get something out of it.
‘It takes the person to say, “I want to get off this”.’
Read more about Roundabout here.