Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

current issue

June – July 2024 : Reflections READ ONLINE


Drugs and hostels

October 06 2011
 New guidelines have been released for tackling drug use in hostels


Small, inexpensive changes to the way hostels and shelters are run could make a real difference to residents trying to get clean, according to a new report.

The study looked at the effect of hostel living on homeless drug users and found that shelters mostly have a detrimental effect on users efforts’ to avoid substance misuse. However, researchers claim that “the impact of hostel living on drug consumption is not, however, always negative or straightforward.”

Despite a focus on improving hostels in recent years, the report from Oxford Brookes University found that wide-ranging issues - from the availability of drugs to a lack of privacy - often added to the risk of drug use.

“The amount of drug-related support that participants received from hostels varied greatly,” said the report. While some hostels performed well, others provided little or no support and it was down to individuals to seek their own assistance outside the hostel.

Of the 40 homeless drug users who had recently stayed in hostels or emergency night shelters across London and the South-East, some said that despite the problems, they still felt safer in a hostel than on the streets. However, according to the report, “some participants said that they preferred to sleep on the streets rather than in hostels as they felt safer, could sleep better, and were able to be with partners and pets.”

The 14-page report placed a strong emphasis on personal relationships between those working in hostels and residents. “Individuals liked having key workers to whom they could talk openly and honestly about their drug use and other problems, and they especially liked key workers who were themselves ex-users and so understood their lives and problems,” said researchers. “When drugrelated support was not offered, residents usually felt that it meant that staff did not care about them.

“Some also expressed concern that they had to hide or deny their drug use within the hostel because staff would watch and monitor them rather than try to help them.”

These relationships are one of the key areas where researchers said hostels could improve their performance without straining budgets.

“By investing time and effort in developing positive hostel relationships and a warm and welcoming atmosphere, hostel staff might find that they can bring about some fundamental, yet relatively inexpensive, improvements to hostel living,” said researchers.

Caral Stevenson, co-author of the report, said the recommended changes would be positive for anyone staying in a hostel, not just drug users.

“Several cheap changes that hostels could make to improve the environment for all residents would be to encourage staff to have a warm and friendly attitude to residents and help them feel welcome and safe,” she told The Pavement.

“They could improve the cleanliness of the hostels and control the noise by perhaps adding fittings to fire doors so they don’t slam shut and/or offering ear plugs.”

Pairing compatible people if rooms must be shared would help to make people feel safer, added Stevenson, while “staff should respect privacy and knock on doors before entering rooms.”

Researchers concluded that “staying in an emergency hostel or night shelter mostly had a very negative impact on levels of drug use” - reinforcing the negative images many readers have of hostels.

However, the study also found that the quality of the service offered by each hostel - and crucially, the attitudes of staff and the use of agency staffed who are deemed less committed - could make a real difference to someone’s chance of getting clean.

Mike McCall, executive director of operations at St Mungo’s, a charity housing over 1,700 people in a mix of emergency shelters, hostels and semi-independent homes, welcomed the report, which he said echoed the charity’s own views. “We’ve learned from experience that treatment options at the hostel, including needle exchanges, on-site prescribing, and one-to-one counselling can make all the difference, and the worry is that these services will continue to disappear with cuts in funding,” said McCall.

Although McCall admitted that St Mungo’s uses agency staff “if needed,” he stressed the quality of its full-time employees. “We pay decent rates, and seek people with good levels of commitment and experience.”