Many residents of Vesterbro have lived alongside the local homeless and drug-addict populations for decades. But for the sake of the drug users’ health – as well as the hope to reduce crime and avoid exposing children to drug culture – many have long demanded that the city provide a room where drug users can inject their drugs under the supervision of healthcare experts.
After more than two decades of appeals, the City Council finally promised last week to invest in a permanent, supervised injection room in Vesterbro that will open in August 2013. With the city stumping up the 13-18 million kroner it is expected to cost, the government is expected to remove the only legal hurdle and legalise the consumption of drugs in the injection room, which will be located in a local community centre called Mændenes Hjem (the men’s home).
Mændenes Hjem has helped marginalised Copenhageners for over 50 years. Situated 300 metres from the central train station, it counts clean needles, food, health check-ups, condoms and beds amongst its services to between 400 and 600 men and women a day.
But on any given day, a crowd of users gathers outside its entrance on Istedgade, a major traffic artery. Many of Mændenes Hjem’s residents take drugs, and the centre serves as a hub for the local drug community. Drug dealing, injecting and smoking all take place in clear view of families, tourists and passers-by – a situation that some argue will only get worse after the house gets an injection room.
Why not Halmtorvet?
Mændenes Hjem was one of three permanent locations on the City Council’s final shortlist. The other two were buildings on the square of Halmtorvet, in between the main streets of Vesterbro and the popular clubbing area in the ‘meatpacking district’ called Kødbyen. The square already houses a café and health clinic for marginalised Copenhageners, collectively called Den Runde Firkant (the round square). Since its opening in 2009 by the grassroots organisation Dugnad, it has successfully drawn much of the drug traffic away from Istedgade and into a walled-off cobblestone square. In fact, the city chose the health clinic as the site of a temporary injection room that will open this October.
According to Lasse Glavind, Vesterbro Local Council’s officer responsible for marginalised groups, it is here that the injection room should be located.
“It’s really great that we will get an injection room because we have been fighting for one for so many years,” Glavind told The Copenhagen Post. “But if the injection room is in Mændenes Hjem, the situation will simply get worse.”
Glavind, who is the co-founder of Dugnad, said that the local council chose Halmtorvet as their preferred location for the injection room due to the success and popularity of Den Runde Firkant – success, he argued, that is due to the outdoor space available for drug users.
“We decided on Halmtorvet because we know that having outside areas is very important. There simply is not sufficient space outside Mændenes Hjem. We have taken a lot of the pressure off from outside Mændenes Hjem since we opened Dugnad [the original name of the café]. Some streets nearby were almost reaching a crisis point between drug users and local residents.”
Glavind’s sentiment was echoed by Johanne Nørvig, the chair of Dugnad’s board.
“I think putting the permanent injection room in Mændenes Hjem is really problematic,” she told The Copenhagen Post. “We should create an entirely new project that can include all groups. Mændenes Hjem already has its user group. An ambitious drug consumption room will need a different professional focus than that what is found at Mændenes Hjem because dealing with homeless people and and drug users is not the same thing. Den Runde Firkant and the volunteering doctors and nurses of the mobile injection room are already using their skills for this purpose and the public benefit."
Local resident Michael Pascual (pictured on cover), who has actively campaigned for an injection room for many years, also expressed his disappointment.
“It happened against all the odds. [The Council] hasn’t listened to anyone or any of the experiences from the local board, experts and neighbours,” Pascual said. “We have a gift that is Kødbyen, so why not use it? We have plenty of empty places there. The experts and local board all pointed out that they need outside space where they can be together, just like Dugnad.”
Glavind, Nørvig and Pascual’s assertions are all supported by the findings of a report about Café D and Den Runde Firkant by engineering firm Rambøll. It found that the outdoor area is a magnet for the local drug-taking community, drawing users and dealers from the streets.
“Café D thereby creates an alternative or supplement to the street,” the report states. “The users benefit enormously in that they can avoid undignified or uncomfortable situations in which residents and especially children bear witness to drug taking.”
Even the City Council acknowledged that Mændenes Hjem’s lack of outdoor space may be a serious drawback.
“The lack of outdoor areas near Mændenes Hjem already produces problems when the users stand outside,” states a document written by the city’s social affairs committee, Socialudvalget, concerning the placement of the injection room. “There is a considerable worry that the problem will only get worse if the injection room is placed there. So social services do not believe that Mændenes Hjem is suitable, as there is no compensation for outdoor areas.”
It seems that funding and logistics were the major forces that sunk Halmtorvet. According to Socialudvalget’s deliberations, the city is considering selling both Halmtorvet 15 and 17 to raise money for the renovation of the adjacent ‘white’ meatpacking district, Den Hvide Kødby. The document states: “The revenue is expected to be reduced by placing [the injection room] at one of the two addresses.”
Other problems identified by Socialudvalget include the fact that Halmtorvet 15 is already being leased out, while Halmtorvet 17 would require expansive renovations in order to become suitable as an injection room. According to the deputy mayor for social affairs, Mikkel Warming, the practical difficulties with the two buildings, combined with the current uncertainty over developments in the area due to the ongoing risk of an ammonium leak in the neighbouring Hvide Kødby, means that the only real solution left is Mændenes Hjem.
“If we chose Halmtorvet for the injection room, we might have to wait two or three years before it is a reality,” Warming said. “We can’t now wait three years for a permanent solution after fighting so long to get to where we are now. [Our] first drug-user room is such a big step forward that we have to get on with it as quickly as possible.”
Warming countered many of the criticisms levelled at Mændenes Hjem. There are several successful injection rooms around the world that do not have outdoor space, he said, adding that they would try to create a system where users entered one door and left through another. He also added that there could be great benefits from having the injection room in the house due to the presence of other targeted services that could also be offered to users of the injection room.
“I understand the frustration and fears that local residents will face even more annoyance. We can’t ignore the fact that it could be a risk, but we will do everything we can to avoid it,” Warming said.
In a recent interview with Information newspaper, Mændenes Hjem’s manager Ivan Christensen said it was unlikely that adding an injection room would adversely affect the home.
“A large portion of our users are already drug abusers,” Christensen said. “They take a lot of drugs all the time. They are addicted. So if we get an injection room we are not creating something that is not here already.”
Copenhagen’s only injection room is a mobile facility, the Mobilt Fixerum, which is housed in a former ambulance. According to the social entrepreneur who initiated it, Michael Lodberg Olsen, it is vital that a permanent injection room is established sooner rather than later.
“What’s most important is that Copenhagen City Council sets up an injection room to reduce the number of deaths from injecting drugs,” Olsen told The Copenhagen Post. “We’ve been waiting for it for 20 years, so it’s very important they get started.”
The mysteries of politics
Jimmy Jensen and Nikita Juul sit with 30 or 40 others in the secluded square outside Den Runde Firkant. Both injecting drug users, they say this outdoor space is vital for addicts and homeless.
“People thrive out here. They can talk and meet each other, and they also end up getting less involved in crime. There’s almost nothing but positive things to say,” Jensen said, adding that placing the injection room in Mændenes Hjem would be unwise. “It’s not a smart idea. It will just end up as a mess. It would be best just to build on what we have here.”
Pascual agrees. Café D and Den Runde Firkant share a square with another city-owned property, PH Café, although a wooden fence separates its guests from the rest. PH Café was even on the shortlist for the injection room, but it was vetoed at an early stage in the City Council’s deliberations, much to Pascual’s dismay.
“Look at what we have here! It would be perfect to have the café and health centre on one side and injection room on the other,” Pascual laments as he stands with The Copenhagen Post on the square. “Drug users could have had the whole square but the city would not give up PH Café.”
This is not the end of the story, however. Warming told The Copenhagen Post that, after the summer, the city will re-examine the option of opening an injection room on Halmtorvet, once the risk of an ammonium leak is better understood. And with the Health Ministry and City Council guaranteeing funding for Den Runde Firkant at least until the end of 2014, Juul and Jensen will still have a place to socialise for some time to come – space that appears to be just as important as the long-awaited injection room itself.
The story was update on April 25, 13:13. The quote of Johanne Nørvig, chair of Dugnas' board, was corrected.