“Pentagon” is a neighbourhood well-known for its open drug scene in Bratislava, Slovakia. Drug litter such as used needles, syringes, cups, and other trash are an everyday issue in this community. It is a place where the majority and the minority meet. While the minority of people who use drugs face several health and social problems, the majority’s frustration is growing as no systematic solutions are adopted. Pentagon is at the margin of political interest, even though the media like to bring shocking scenes from the neighbourhood to cover in the news. From time to time, promises from politicians and the Ministry of interior are aired. However, thanks to people who use drugs, Pentagon has slowly started to change its face in the past year.
People who use drugs clean up the community
The civic association Odyseus, founded in 1997, is the oldest harm reduction NGO in Slovakia. It has been operating at Pentagon since 2001. It provides mobile needle and syringe programmes, counselling, HIV and syphilis testing, and social assistance for people who inject drugs and sex workers. Currently, it is developing a community involvement strategy and for several years it has been cooperating with peer volunteers as the first and, so far, only programme in Slovakia. In Pentagon, Odyseus comes into contact with over 400 people who use drugs, who bring about 30,000 used syringes for safe disposal each year.
During their outreach work, social workers from Odyseus often face criticism and frustration of the neighbours as a symptom of NIMBY-ism and stigmatisation. As the usual myth goes, some of the locals even blame the needle and syringes programme for bringing drugs users to the community, and think that people who use drugs are not worth working with.
Odyseus decided to give people who use drugs a chance to show otherwise. From their long-term experience with the community, Odyseus knew that people who use drugs really do care, and can unite for change. The organisation raised funding for the special project for active participation of the community from the municipality of Bratislava, and got help from the city district which provided high-capacity containers for litter disposal. Besides the peer work, Odyseus encouraged people who use drugs to clean-up the neighbourhood together with outreach workers.
We wanted to show to the whole Pentagon neighbourhood that people who use drugs are not indifferent and have a great power to do great things. It is only a matter of opportunity.
There were 20 people who use drugs who participated in the clean-ups. Chances to get a job are very limited for them - they usually do not even have ID cards; they have a criminal record and high debts. Despite the fact that most of them are homeless and have health problems, they were eager to help improve the situation for the whole community.
In Slovakia, the social and health system provide people who are active drugs users very little opportunity to make any positive change, as the harm reduction services remain inaccessible for most of them. The truth is that Slovakia lacks systematic funding and a strategic approach to evidence-informed interventions. For example, there are only 3 needle and syringe programmes left, while there is a complete absence of them in the central and eastern part of the country, after the NGO from Kosice (eastern Slovakia) Pomocna ruka, closed down after 14 years at the beginning of this year.
According to Odyseus, Pentagon, like many places in Slovakia, really deserves more systematic solutions that could be found through a mutual dialogue. In this case, for more than 10 years, it has been promised and believed that drugs will be pushed out of this community entirely. Nowadays, renovation of the buildings and private security services are spoken of as the magical solutions in Pentagon, and many people dream this would be the way to get rid of the whole community of people who use drugs. Still, wouldn’t it be better to stick to solidarity and evidence rather than just another dream?
The clean-ups are only one of the activities which are offered by Odyseus to the municipality and to the city district. Currently, Odyseus is discussing the possibility of opening a drop-in centre directly in Pentagon so they can work closer to the community. The funding remains the biggest challenge to overcome.
Iveta Chovancová & Miroslava Žilinská, OZ Odyseus