My Friendship With A Heroin User Showed Me Just How Judgemental I Was
On Wednesday, readers of the Herald Sun were confronted with a cover image of two men injecting heroin into their arms in the corner of a CBD parking lot.
A double page spread within the paper showed the men hunched over, surrounded by dirty bedding and discarded drug paraphernalia.
Regular users of the car park were reported to be angry at the frequent intrusions of rough sleepers and drug users. “Customers of the multi-level Wilson Parking lot say they do not feel safe,” stated the article.
It’s easy to react with disgust and outrage when confronted with images like the ones in The Herald Sun. And that anger is understandable. It’s true that the safety of others could be jeopardised by the presence of needles and drugs, and that parking spots are not designed to function as camp sites.
These types of reactions are understandable, but they’re not fair, because they rely on the dehumanisation of the men in the photos.
When I was 24 I met Casey*. I was fresh out of a live-in partnership which had spanned my entire adult life, and was good and ready to have some Experiences. Casey was charming and puppy-dog-sweet; always game to join in whatever crazy party-mission that I’d drunkenly come up with. He was also addicted to heroin.
Upon discovering this information, my first reaction was disbelief. That’s impossible! I thought. He’s so… normal. My second was deep shame.
In one sickening moment, all my preconceptions about ‘heroin addicts’ came into sharp focus, tumbling across my mind in a dark slide show: stick thin women in dirty clothes, old men who could barely stand as they limped down the street. I realised that I didn’t want Casey to be addicted to heroin, because it forced me to admit that my whole life I had been casting ‘heroin addicts’ as beneath me.
Before meeting Casey, I might have read the Herald Sun’s article and frowned in disapproval. It wouldn’t have occurred to me how lines like: “Carpark junkie den metres from Victoria’s parliament” serve to normalise and encourage the dehumanisation of drug users.
Stigma toward injecting drug users is normalised to the extent that we view them as inherently unworthy of sympathy. But if we try to set aside that attitude for a moment, we can see the images in the Herald Sun for what they really are: a glaring example of just how badly we are failing in the areas of addiction, mental health and homelessness.
The men in the photos probably don’t want to be shooting up in a dirty car park any more than the lot’s clients do. I’m sure they’d much prefer to have a safe and hygienic place to use drugs; maybe they’d even like some help in getting off them. But to get there, we first need to accept that these men are worthy of empathy.
Right now in Melbourne we have an intersecting web of crises which are leading people like the men in the pictures to desperate measures. Homelessness is on the rise, with about 400 people sleeping rough in Victorian cities. Local homelessness agencies are at "crisis levels,” says Major Brendan Nottle of the Salvation Army.
Mental health supports, especially for those who require a high level of care, are woefully inadequate. Addiction treatment centres are prohibitively expensive and waiting lists for Medicare-funded places are months long. Prisoner numbers, especially among women, are climbing rapidly, with more than 40 percent of female inmates currently leaving prison and heading into homelessness, after a period of supported accommodation. Intimate partner violence is causing more women than ever to end up on the streets.
As Brendan Nottle points out, the local services we have in place aren’t touching the sides. To deal with these cycles of tragedy that so often lead to homelessness, we need a national strategy. We need federal money, and we need our politicians to start asking themselves how they plan to get those two things in place.
What we don’t need is pollies like NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian complaining about how uncomfortable she’s made by the sight of homeless people. People in positions of influence have a responsibility to help eradicate the stigma that feeds cycles of disenfranchisement, not encourage it.
As for the men in the photo, a good start would be a safe injecting facility in the CBD. The one in Richmond has been a huge success – this would be a simple, obvious first step.
But none of this is going to happen if we’re comfortable simply shaking our heads in disgust and turning the page.
If you would like to assist homeless people with drug dependencies, there are many amazing charities and organisations who would be ecstatic to have your help.
Here are the names of a few:
The peak body for Aboriginal health in Victoria. Get in touch for info on how to donate to Indigenous health services
Youth homelessness organisation
Has a great list of homeless and other worthy organisations seeking volunteers