‘Tis better to give …

A group of clients at the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, to protect their identities we only see their feet in the image

‘Tis better to give …

Wandering around the Christmas light–lit streets and baubled shopping centres of NSW and ACT, it’s easy to see that Christmas is well and truly on its way. The age-old proverb ‘tis better to give than to receive’ rings true for all of us here at Uniting, but for some of our teams, Christmas is a time of year where they truly dig deep to give of themselves to some of the most marginalised people in our community.

The Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre (also known as Uniting MSIC) is open 365 days a year, including on Christmas Day. It’s a compassionate and practical harm minimisation health service for people who inject drugs, located in Sydney’s Kings Cross. The team of health practitioners and counsellors who work at the centre welcome people without judgement into an environment where they can connect to the help they need. We spoke with Cat about what this time of year is like for her team.

What is Christmas like at the Uniting Medically Supervised Injecting Centre?

Christmas is a difficult time for a lot of the clients who come in to use the service. It can remind them of their disconnection from family – grief for people they have lost; a reminder that they don’t have a home or a job or whatever other significant thing that many of us take for granted. That’s why we work really hard to make Christmas special for our clients.

We cover the centre with Christmas decorations and our team works really hard to keep the atmosphere happy and fun. Importantly, we’re also there to listen and support our clients when they’re finding it hard. They are really grateful that we’re open over Christmas. We get a lot of love and appreciation – “Thank you for being open today. We know you’ve taken time away from your families to be here for us”.

On Christmas Day there is a palpable vibe of positive energy. Clients generally get along well with each other – better than other times of the year. There is more happiness and laughter than usual as we all chat together and share the Christmas cheer.

We also celebrate together as a team over lunch when we close the centre for an hour and each of us brings a plate of food. We have a special sense of camaraderie in sharing this tradition together.

How do you spread the festive cheer with your clients?

Christmas is a great example of how our service is about more than just safe injecting. On Christmas Day we give out gift bags and food hampers. We also have food and drinks laid out on the tables in the aftercare area for clients to help themselves to.

This is an important part of our work on the day because it lets our clients know that we see them – we believe that they are valuable people who deserve to be recognised as such. We do it to show we care for them and that they’re just as deserving of gifts as the rest of the community.

We see people who are completely gobsmacked. They can’t believe that we’re giving them gifts and they’re very touched. It is very common to hear the words, “Thank you. This is the only present I’ve been given this year,” followed by a big hug.

Can you tell us some of your favourite Christmas stories?

Andy* often brings some challenging behaviour with him into the centre – he can be somewhat passive aggressive in his interactions with staff and is often up for an argument. On Christmas Day, the team member who gave him his gift was somewhat tentative, but to her surprise it was like interacting with a different man. After he looked in the bag Andy exclaimed, “This is perfect, thank you. Oh, now I’m getting all teary”. He gave her a big hug with tears of gratitude in his eyes.

Alice and Micky a couple who were visiting from the bush were stunned by what they discovered on Christmas Day in the centre. It was like they were thinking, “What is this place!? Not only do they make sure we’re safe while we use drugs, they give us presents too!” This couple were living rough without access to a washing machine, so for Micky to simply get the chance to change out of his old smelly shirt into a new one made his Christmas – a gift he described as “kind and useful.”

Kate and Monty also joined us for Christmas. The two are regulars at the service and are always upbeat and grateful for the gifts they receive. Kate particularly loved the perfume she was given and gleefully told her partner, “Oh look, Monty! Isn’t this beautiful? I’m going to put it…” and went on to describe how she would display the bottle in their home. Until a couple of years ago, this couple had been homeless on a long-term basis, so having pretty things in the house is really important to Kate.

I’ve got so many more stories I could share like these ones. It’s so good to know our work is making a difference to people’s lives in such a meaningful way.

*All names have been changed.

Why will you be working this Christmas?

It’s important that we’re open on Christmas Day and Boxing Day because drug use or addiction doesn’t take a holiday just because the majority of people in Australia do. People still need a clean and safe place to inject drugs. Many of our clients are homeless and don’t have anywhere else safe to go. Many of them don’t have a family or at least a family that cares about them, so we can be that family to them on Christmas. Being able to celebrate the holiday with people who care about them is deeply important to our clients. They are so grateful – so happy. You will never see as many smiles at Uniting MSIC as you’ll see on Christmas Day.

Learn more about Uniting MSIC

Read a blog by Dr Marianne Jauncey, Medical Director of Uniting MSIC. For more information about this harm minimisation service, get in touch on 1800 864 846 or email us.

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