Drugs and homelessness have claimed the lives of 60 people in Wrexham over the past six years.
The grim death toll – equivalent to 10 fatalities a year – is marked on a Memory Tree at a hostel run by a homeless charity in the town
And the memorial at The Wallich’s Tŷ Croeso home on Grosvenor Road will soon be adding another five names to the sad list.
North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones was appalled to hear the shocking statistic.
He is a committed campaigner for the reform of the UK’s drugs laws and supports organisations which work with the victims of homelessness and substance abuse.
According to Mr Jones, rough sleepers were more often than not the victims of a multitude of complex issues, including mental health problems, homelessness and problematic drug use.
Their pitiful plight was one of the reasons he was introducing a new scheme called Checkpoint to divert low level offenders away from a life of crime.
Mr Jones, a former police inspector, was speaking during a visit to see the Memory Tree at Tŷ Croeso.
He is also supporting another North Wales charity, CAIS which has plans to extend its Soup Dragon initiative for the homeless for which he provides financial support.
The commissioner said the overwhelming majority of fatalities were the result of drug overdoses and he added: “It is a terrible indictment on society that so many people are dying needless deaths in Wrexham and is a clear demonstration that a new approach is needed.
“In the meantime, CAIS and the other agencies involved in the Wrexham Homelessness Prevention Project are doing fantastic work.
“One of the main principles when the police force was established was the protection of life and that’s what we’re doing by supporting this organisation and addressing the underlying causes of crime and the homelessness that is a blot on society’s landscape.
“Homeless people live chaotic lives and places like Soup Dragon give them access to the services that can help them.
“We know there’s a strong link between Universal Credit and homelessness and as long as we have that then the problem will continue.
“It is everywhere and it’s shambolic for the fifth richest country in the world because we are going back to the 1930s.”
CAIS have helped over 100 people avoid homelessness in the past 12 months and taken 44 others off the streets and into accommodation in the same period.
They are to step up their hot meal service from five nights a week by adding afternoon openings at their office on King Street on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Soup Dragon has been offering food, drinks and support for 14 years and CAIS Partnerships and Business Development Manager Steve Campbell said: “Sadly, there has been a widespread increase in homelessness throughout Wales and the UK in recent years.
“In Wrexham, we have seen a drop in the number of rough sleepers from 46 last year to about 30 currently – but the numbers have been rising for the past three years and it’s difficult to know how accurate the figures are as we can only count the people we find.
“Over the last three years rough sleeping in Wrexham had pretty much doubled – but has now reduced by about 35 per cent from last year. We have had a big push to reduce it, and in 2018 we have helped 44 people into new homes
“The main causes of this increase in homelessness are welfare reform and a lack of affordable housing particularly for 25 to 34-year-olds, which comes against a backdrop of austerity and broader problems in society.
“It is often said that homelessness can happen to anyone, for a range of reasons, and we should remember that not everyone who is homeless is using drugs or alcohol. But the longer a person is homeless the higher the likelihood of mental health and substance abuse issues, and other physical health problems.
“When people start to use drugs initially it might help to take away the pain, suffering and fear. But quickly drugs become the primary problem and create issues of their own.
“The Wrexham model has been successful because we have been able to work alongside colleagues at partner agencies and other voluntary groups.
“At the moment we are seeing more younger people finding themselves in this predicament.
“They are turning to hard drugs more quickly and that’s where we are focusing a lot of our attention.”
Mr Jones anticipates part of the Checkpoint programme will be piloted in a selected area of North Wales early this year, with the aim of rolling it out across the region over the next 12 months.
Each offender will be supervised by a skilled ‘navigator’ – many of whom have successfully completed rehabilitation programmes – the four-month period and they face prosecution if the contract is broken.
Participants are offered the chance to avoid prosecution by seeking help from rehabilitation services in the community after signing a contract to say they will comply.
A similar scheme is already proving a big success in Durham where it has led to reoffending rates being cut to four per cent from 19 per cent.
Mr Jones said: “By directing offenders in North Wales towards appropriate services, we can cut crime, reduce the demand on police and court time and hopefully help save lives.”
Many of these services are already being signposted by Soup Dragon including regular Friday morning surgeries run by Dr Karen Sankey, a GP in Wrexham for the past 24 years, who has formed her own social enterprise group to provide services for the homeless.
The surgeries are held on Friday mornings at the Wrexham Community Care Hub, based at the Salvation Army Centre, and bring together a number of services including GP and dental services, mental health, substance misuse services, housing and homelessness services under one roof.
Dr Sankey said: “I have been interested in how we can engage with vulnerable people for the past two or three years because they often miss out on care.
“I’d like to create a model of general practice to meet the social and psychological needs of this group and not just their physical needs.
“The general health of people out on the streets is shocking and if they need help then we can provide it.
“We see lots of mental health issues but even physical health problems like diabetes and symptoms of being malnourished as well as problems with their feet or wounds that need looking after.”