No panic in Needle Park: Centre hands out free, clean drug kits to save lives

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Many of the people in whose circles he moved have died in the past three years – 75 in total.

He had a heart attack in 2015 after using heroin for more than a decade and living on the streets.

Now he sits, casually drinking coffee with his “brothers and sisters” at the 1081 drop-in centre for drug users in Hatfield, Pretoria, a street away from embassies and government buildings.

Drug users walk through its remote-controlled security gate every Wednesday, past corporate offices and down stairs to an underground haven of safety where they get clean needles.

The centre is run by OUT Well-being, a gay and lesbian organisation, in conjunction with The Step UP needle exchange project funded by the TB/HIV Care Association.

At the 1081 clinic drug users get clean needles to avoid sharing them and contracting HIV and Hepatitis.

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BACK ON TRACK: Andries Swarts, a recovering addict, uses the prescription drug methadone to wean himself off heroin. Picture: Alon Skuy

People drink countless mugs of coffee, watch movies projected onto the wall and, if they wish to, take a shower.

“I like needles like I like my millionaires – clean and sterile,” reads a poster. A social worker listens to some of their stories. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly as people sit chatting.

Dylan Peens, who says he does not do heroin but lives on the street and drinks, walks around doing magic tricks with a pack of cards. His sleight of hand baffles observers.

Swarts said after 14 years on the street he wanted to commit suicide as “no one gave a sh*t”. Using heroin was not fun any more. He tried to get the police to shoot him once. “Luckily,” he says, he did not succeed. He says the project saved his life.

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SAFETY FIRST: The ‘harm-reduction pack’ of purified water, syringes, burner pots and alcohol swabs.
Picture: Alon Skuy

Swarts says the fact the project never asked him to quit but treated him like a human helped.

“This project didn’t care we were using drugs. It respects you as not as  junkie, not as someone who smelt bad. They gave me a hug and said you are important. You do matter.”

“Heroin users are some of the most down-to-earth people you will meet,” says one of the project’s founders, former drug user Henry Bam.

Bam and fellow founder Nelson Medeiros got to know Swarts and his friend Connie van Staden on the street. Later they raised money to send them to rehabilitation and provide the drug methadone, which helps heroin addicts cope with the withdrawal symptoms.

Van Staden and Swarts are now managers at the drop-in centre. They walk 10km through the Pretoria CBD twice a week handing out safety packs of syringes and needles, alcohol swabs, purified water to mix heroin with, and burner aluminium bowls – safer to burn heroin on than old tin cans. Users must return old needles.

Many pharmacies won’t sell clean needles to users, they say.

While the project has national police support, local police don’t always approve of outreach workers handing out needles. Two members of the project were arrested three weeks ago for handing out purified water to ensure heroin is not mixed with water from dirty puddles. The 1965 Medicines and Related Substances Act prevents people from being in possession of more than 20ml of the liquid.

Local police have told Swarts that the needle exchange project encourages drug use. Tshwane central police spokesman captain Anton Breedt was angry as he spoke about people who handed out clean needles.

“Why must we fight this drug abuse and they assist them? Even if you give them needles, there are old needles lying around,” he said. “They are helping these people use drugs.”

“We don’t arrest drug users to reach a target. We arrest them because there is house breaking or theft of vehicles. They are helping these people use drugs. Why don’t they take them clothing or  food or bedding. People there stay in poverty. It is a dump.”

Swarts does not agree. “The problem [of drug use] is not going to go away. We need to deal with it,” he says. Swarts knew two heroin addicts who committed suicide in prison rather than face the pain of withdrawal.

Van Staden believes that drug users are certain to be targeted and arrested due to a renewed focus by politicians on drug use in Rosettenville, Johannesburg.

As long as drug use is criminalised, and helping users on the street is seen as promoting drug use, Swarts and Bam face an uphill battle to change lives the way the project changed theirs.

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