Brunswick Square at 9.30 in the morning seems lost between two worlds. Between the anarchism of Stokes Croft and the shiny capitalism of Cabot Circus stands a big pink door, the Bristol Drugs Project’s (BDP). Inside, the atmosphere is warm and welcoming, and surprisingly comfortable. “There’s certainly a stigma attached to drug use”, explains Paul Dunning, who has been volunteering at the BDP since August 2009.
He moved to Bristol from London a year ago, and when he was given an opportunity to helpat the BDP, which is something he “really wanted to do”, he took it. The needle exchange is one of the many services the Project, com- posed of 100 full time staff and 50 volunteers, offers. One day a week, Dunning provides registered users with clean needles, in exchange for used ones, “to try and make [drug use] as safe as possible for them.”
The service users, as they are called once they take the step of going to the Bristol Drugs Project, are also kept informed and advised about the dangers of blood borne viruses. Harm reduction, de ned as ‘a reduction of factors which inhibit functioning’, works for some people, says Dunning, who thinks you cannot force abstinence on people, “It has to come from them”.
The BDP has been going on for 23 years and its great reputation is certainly due to the professionalism and open mindedness of the people who run it. The charity aims at helping people who suffer from a drug habit on as many levels as health, relationships, housing etc, and it is crucial that these people be informed and advised on the options available to them.
Service users can also use the drop-in session to have a coffee or a chat in the warm living room, and take a break from their tumultuous lives. Dunning remembers similar services in London, years ago, where registration was not compulsory to get clean needles, “they’d give you a certain amount [of needles] and that was it”. No support would be offered.
At the BDP, listening skills are essential and volunteers acquire them during the six week training they undertake, along with learning about the clients that come in, the BDP services and getting a picture of the drug situation. In the needle exchange, “if you ask [people] how they are, it’s an opportunity for them to spill out”. As Dunning explains, “many of them have very chaotic lifestyles; a lot come from broken families. Women sufferas well, especially from loss of children, which often is a common situation. It is very important for problematic drug users to come, and to be able to help them, one way or another.”
The BDP encourages ex-users to get involved as volunteers, providing they have been off drugs for a year. He admits his past of drug user is what led him to pursue this path, and that if he “had lived the normal life, nine til five job, and had not been affected in any way by drugs, [...] it would not have been on [his] list of things to do.” On his application form to become a volunteer, Dunning wrote “I feel that I’m at a point in my life where I’ve got something to give back.” It took him “a long time, and more than one trial to get recovery”, and he insists, “it’s down to the individual” to make this life-changing decision.
Although his experience helps him in this work, he does not think ex-users make the best workers as a rule. The intensive training puts everyone to the same level of drug awareness, yet it remains a difficult choice to make, and trainees soon realise if they are ready to take such a heavy engagement. He re- members some “quite graphic videos of users”, that would shock the most sensitive viewers. The reality of a drug user’s lifestyle is probably the hardest to grasp; street use, unstable accommodations, and the obvious health risks.
Adding to these harsh realities is the one-sided coverage given by mainstream media on drug issues. Dunning admits that “a lot of it is like you read in the papers, attached to this crime and homeless- ness”, but that is not the full picture. Some users that come to the BDP still have jobs, “they inject themselves in the groin, which is usually the last place you’d inject yourself in, because they can’t show it [at work].”
Drawing from his personal experience, in pursuing the tasks the BDP tries to achieve Dunning cannot help getting frustrated. “You feel very helpless,” he says. But this is outweighed by the positives, when a user tells him: “it’s a godsend being able to come here and talk to you people.” Hearing this, once in a while, is what makes Dunning go back to Brunswick square every Tuesday.