Maintaining rehabilitation services during the pandemic

Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark Kennedy of Merchants Quay Ireland speaks to The Liberty on its experiences and struggles.  

Homeless people beg for money on O’Connell bridge in central Dublin November 16, 2010. Ireland came under intense pressure on Tuesday to request aid over its debt crunch in what the European Council’s president called a “survival crisis” for the euro zone and the wider European Union. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Over the course of this pandemic, the eyes of the Irish public have been glued to the health care system and its workers. Our television screens have been inundated with moving documentaries of COVID wards, profiles on hardworking nurses, and sobering interviews with local GPs. 

However, some rehabilitation services in Ireland have been largely overlooked.  

Merchants Quay Ireland offers help and services to people dealing with homelessness and addiction issues. It also offers counselling and community work throughout Ireland.  

“COVID has completely changed our approaches – every service we have has been impacted,” Mark Kennedy, head of recovery services, told The Liberty.  “Group work has had to be suspended across our services, with exception of the residential centres.”  

“Within the prisons, we have had to adapt our counselling to video conferencing technology or phone counselling – it’s been a strange process.  

“We try to minimise contact as much as possible. We still offer face to face  but not to the extent of what it was. Even staff handovers are sometimes by video.” 

“COVID has completely changed our approaches – every service we have has been impacted,”

Mark Kennedy, HEAD OF RECOVERY SERVICES, merchants quay ireland

At their day service on Merchants Quay, up to 300 people could attend in one day, with 70-80 people there at the one time. To reduce face-to-face contact, the drop-in centre had to be restructured. 

“We’ve put a huge emphasis on outreach,” Kennedy explained.  

“It means we still get to interact with people one-on-one, in a safer way. A lot of it is street-based outreach – we have three different teams working two shifts on any given day.  

“One focuses on people sleeping on the street, one is a harm reduction outreach which focuses on drug abuse, and then we have community-based outreach which focuses on local businesses and community members.” 

With so many services now working remotely, Merchants Quay Ireland has ensured that no one is left behind. 

“We’ve been providing phones to the homeless to ensure that they are still included. It’s not just our services they could be missing out on, it’s the human contact. At Christmas we included phone credit and phone chargers in what we gave out.” 

The charity has seen a surge in people approaching them since the pandemic began. 

“There is higher demand since the pandemic began – drug use is linked to mental health issues and for a lot of people, their mental health has taken a negative turn. Unfortunately, a lot of people have turned to drugs. 

“For us, whether it’s our rehab or detox centres, or our community-based outreach teams around the country, demand has unfortunately been increasing. 

“The hardest challenge for us in this pandemic has been peoples anxiety levels, within the client group and within staff teams too. Contracting COVID has been a massive worry for everyone involved.  

Secretary General Trevor Holmes of Irish Red Cross with MQI CEO Paula Byrne last August. Courtesy of Instagram- Merchantsquayir.

“Our sick leave has of course gone up, like most places around the country!  

“Staffing of services has been stressful, we have often been spread quite thin. You always need contingency services.” 

According to Kennedy, if Merchants Quay were to express anything to the public, it is to be kind to one another.  

“We need to look out for each other, we need to show each other more compassion. Especially to people who might be running into trouble with alcohol or drugs. Now more than ever, people need that extra bit of kindness. We need to hold off on our judgement and increase our compassion.” 

Merchants Quay Ireland: Homeless & Drugs Services (

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