The particular vulnerabilities of women caught up in an "epidemic" of crack addiction in west Tallaght, Dublin, are clear during an evening with one of the area's only after-hours outreach teams.
Of the 14 crack users engaging with the Jobstown Assisting Drug Dependency (JADD) outreach team, six were women. Over the course of three hours, team leader Pat Clifford and support worker Christine Ashmore brought hampers of hot food and non-perishables, packed up with crack pipes and injecting paraphernalia, to people in their homes, couch-surfing, in tents or begging.
“The majority we knew from coming to the harm-reduction service,” says Clifford. “We maintain the connections, may make more, and perhaps the connections turn into something else, where they might want to go into treatment.”
The first person we meet is Marie (38), whose “level of coping has fallen through the floor”, says Clifford. Outside her front door are about 20 full refuse sacks, piled high and putrefying. “She has more in her apartment, can’t afford to have them collected. All her money is going on crack,” he explains. “Tonight she is looking for some hot food and two pipes.”
Marie tells us: “I’m having trouble with the bins. They’re too expensive to be honest, with the crack. I get €203 a week. The crack is about about €40 a day. There’s no food. I am trying to get clean but it’s some struggle. I’m not allowed near my ma’s because I was robbing them. I suffer with depression and anxiety. I don’t move out of the house and it’s cold because my heating isn’t on.”
As we leave, Ashmore reflects on the plight of women such as Marie. “These girls were doing well, they had their children, lovely houses and now they have lost their children. They’re down to prostitution... We call with a bit of food for them. Some have no heating, no electricity. There’s the dirty, burning smell of crack in the house.”
Women now account for 30 per cent of crack users engaging with services in west Tallaght. Many are "increasingly vulnerable to intimidation and forced behaviours [including] selling themselves to settle debts," warns a report, published on Monday by Tallaght Drug and Alcohol Task Force (TDATF).
Among them are young mothers, some of whom have been forced to have sex with men brought to their homes by pushers they have debts with, while children sleep upstairs.
Debbie Dolan, addiction support worker with Community Addiction Response Programme (CARP) in Killinarden, says the drug "definitely affects women harder than men".
As well as a more rapid and intense addiction, there is a greater perceived shame and guilt among women about their addiction, says Grace Hill, TDATF co-ordinator. She is concerned about women who may not be coming forward for help for this reason.
In 2018 CARP started a pilot programme designed and tailored to the women presenting with crack addiction. “We had started to see a change in how women [who were attending methadone programmes] were presenting,” says Dolan. “Women who were previously functioning were becoming more chaotic, dishevelled. There was the rapid weight loss. They were more anxious. Everything was amplified. It was harder to even get them into a room.”
She is funded to work just 21 hours a week. “I could easily be working full-time, and more.” Emphasising how intensive the work can be with the women, she says a least 80 per cent are “very, very traumatised”.
“A lot of domestic violence, historic rapes. I have worked with women who were exposed [as children] to paedophile rings. If you find a coping skill that works, that takes you away from that pain, you will keep resorting back to that.”
This stuff is worse than heroin. It's worse than any kind of drug that's out there. It's a killer. And you will sell your own grandmother to get this stuff
Theresa (43), almost lost the apartment she rents from an approved housing body due to her addiction. It is dark and cold. Her daughter’s toys are everywhere, though she has not seen her for two years.
“I lost her through the crack cocaine,” she says. “I don’t use every day, but once the money goes in my pocket it’s very hard.” She inherited “a few bob” when her father died, and also from her grandmother. “I am getting it in bits and pieces but every time I get that, it goes on it. I have spent about €50,000 of my father’s and nan’s money on crack.
“It’s not just addiction. This stuff is worse than heroin. It’s worse than any kind of drug that’s out there. It’s a killer. And you will sell your own grandmother to get this stuff.”
Asked about her childhood, she says: “I wasn’t brought up with very good parents. My life was: both parents in addiction – alcohol, fighting, violence. I was abused. My mother tried to kill me when I was a kid. She threw me down stairs”.
Following the death of her partner four years ago, she was “using other stuff” but she was coping. “I still had food in my house. I still had my bills paid. We were a grand little family.
“But I needed help and it wasn’t there for me. I needed counselling through a lot of things. I was left waiting, waiting, waiting and I turned to something else, something quick, and for them five minutes of feeling happy – it’s gone out of your head, to escape from your head for five minutes – you will.
“Something has to be done to help. There are going to be a lot of children took away from a lot of families because this is getting worse.”
In a council house about 3km away, Robyn (45) has been on drugs most of her life. “But crack cocaine has destroyed me in less than five years. I have lost my four beautiful children to it.”
Both her parents were “active alcoholics” and she and her siblings were in care. “The chaos was major,” she said. “I knew from the womb I wasn’t wanted” and “by the time I was 15 I was gone, using drugs. I got into heroin at 16. I thought all the cool, chilled people took gear”.
She was homeless with three of her children for three years and lost two partners to suicide. “I went into shock after the second fella died.”
On methadone, she was just about coping, though smoking crack too. “I think I needed more support with life. It’s a blessing my children were took at the time, but at the end of the day a mother is the best thing for a child. Rather than splitting up a family I wish I had got some support, because when I lost them it just got so much worse.”
“[JADD] is the only place that has given me faith back in myself... There was times I wouldn’t have food if it was not for them.” Treatment services “need to be updated” to address crack cocaine and to better support women. “This epidemic is so new, and came so fast.”
It's a want, an emotional thing. I go up higher, can't come down, and then crash badly. It's horrific – the crying
In a private estate in Citywest, Sam and Aisling, in their 40s, have just shared a crack pipe. Aisling is trying to use less as she is hoping to get access visits with her children, who now live with her sister.
She had a “total psychotic breakdown” about four months ago. “I couldn’t come down. I got paranoid by a hundred, climbing out the windows, thought everyone was against me. It was very frightening.”
She spent 19 nights in a psychiatric ward, but discharged herself. Thwarting her efforts to reduce are dealers “bombarding” her with text messages, offering “two-for-one” deals; saying “We drive to you, 24/7”.
“Every second person seems to sell it now,” says Aisling.
“You just ring and they’ll meet you,” says Sam. “But it’s all kids selling it, 14 or 15. I try to avoid them. The attitude and the cheek of them. They’re getting groomed. They have wads of cash, access to firearms. It’s scary.”
They agree women are affected by crack more intensely than men. “They go to rock bottom a lot quicker. I go to more extremes, to a different level than Sam,” says Aisling. “It’s a want, an emotional thing. I go up higher, can’t come down, and then crash badly. It’s horrific – the crying.
“Losing my kids eats me up every day. It’s destroyed my family. My 17-year-old doesn’t want to know me.”
Sam has smoked €7,000 worth of crack in 30 hours. “I was ‘washing it up’ [manufacturing crack from powdered cocaine]. Now, we’d smoke at least €100 a day. A lot of [dealers] would ask me to test it for them before they buy it. I do the odd bit to help, give them a lift here and there.”
The JADD team brings support to men begging at petrol stations, and also to an older man whose council house appears to be occupied by several younger men. Whether this is an example of “cuckooing”, where vulnerable addicts’ homes are targeted and used as a base in which to use or deal, is unclear.
“They may be slipping him a few bob for his drugs,” says Clifford. “Most couch-surfers are there with the permission of the tenant, but he would be very vulnerable.”
The extreme vulnerability, isolation and despair of crack users across Tallaght this weekday evening is evident. All say JADD, whose crack cocaine outreach service is funded only until December, is their only support. Most say it is saving their lives.