How Your Neighbourhood Changes When Drug Users Visit to Get Their Fix
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How Your Neighbourhood Changes When Drug Users Visit to Get Their Fix

Two supervised injection sites have opened in central Copenhagen since 2013. Casper Christoffersen photographed the changes the neighbourhood has experienced as a result of that.
April 4, 2017, 11:41am

This article originally appeared on VICE Denmark

Istedgade in central Copenhagen is less than a mile long, but the street is home to two social extremes. There's the gentrified end of the street, where people push strollers and sip flat whites – and there's the other, grittier end, where sex workers wait in corners and people shoot drugs into their bloodstreams.

The street is situated in the Vesterbro neighbourhood, and it's Denmark's largest open drug scene. On or near the Istedgade, you'll also find Mændenes Hjem – the area's homeless shelter – and Copenhagen's two permanent supervised injection sites, called Skyen ("The Cloud") and the more recently opened H17.

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In 2013, around the same time that the first injection site, Skyen, opened its doors, photographer and local resident Casper Christoffersen started taking photographs of the neighbourhood and the people he met on the streets. Looking through those pictures now, it's clear how much has changed since the injection sites opened and the area's users don't have to get their fix on the street anymore.

"I live just a couple of minutes from Mændenes Hjem, and I used to find needles and rubbish outside my front door almost every morning. That's very rare now. But if you know the neighbourhood a little bit, you'll understand that change isn't absolute," he says.

Read more: Inside Copenhagen's Swanky, New Supervised Injection Site

The supervised injection sites are spaces where addicts can use drugs without running the risk of dying of an overdose, getting robbed or freezing while high. Another advantage is that there are noticeably less used needles in the area's alleys and basement stairwells. That change has come at a cost – the injection sites are so popular that they attract drug users from all over the city, and street life in the heart of the densely populated neighbourhood has become even more chaotic and violent.

Lasse Glavind has lived next door to Mændenes Hjem for many years, and was one of the local residents who pushed authorities to establish the supervised sites in the area. He describes the time before the injection sites as "apocalyptic", but he also admits especially the success of Skyen has not made life any less difficult for his neighbours.

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"There used to be people standing on the stairs in front of my door with their trousers around their ankles, getting a fix," he says. "That happens less these days. But the supervised injection sites have brought so many more people to the area. It's like a fix factory now."

Michael Lodberg Olsen is a local activist who took the initiative for Fixelancen – a former ambulance turned into Denmark's first legal supervised injection site. He estimates that the drug scene in Inner Vesterbro is made up of about 800 locals. But at Skyen alone, about 3800 people from all over the city are registered as users – most commute to Vesterbro to get their fix. Michael Lodberg Olsen agrees with Lasse Glavid that both the neighbourhood and the users would be better served if Copenhagen's injection sites had been spread out across a larger area, in other parts of town.

"It isn't really fair that users in the other parts of town don't get such swanky conditions. And it seems now that the city created the world's largest supervised injection site right in the middle of one of the world's largest open drug scenes. These users are all completely different characters and cramming so many different vulnerable people together in the same small place is bound to lead to friction and tension," Lodberg Olsen tells me.

"As a resident of the neighbourhood I understand the social contrasts, but it's still mental to see people drinking craft beers in a trendy restaurant, while right outside some of the most disenfranchised members of society are desperately looking for drugs," says Casper Christoffersen, who shot the majority of his photos on his way to and from work.

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"If you stop up every once in a while, you start recognising people and notice that however unforgiving their lives are, they still have fun in their lives. That's also something I wanted to show with my pictures. Someone enjoying the summer sun while taking a hit, a couple having a quick shag behind a container or the guy who climbs on a police motorcycle for a quick picture – those kinds of situations are part of this neighbourhood."

Local activist Michael Lodberg Olsen is well-acquainted with Vesterbro's drug scene, and he has provided some comments with Casper Christoffersen's pictures from 2013 below.

"Over the last few years, the drug scene in the area has definitely gotten harsher. Partly because cocaine has gotten much more popular, partly because the injection sites have made the whole scene more crowded and intense."

"This is basically what Inner Vesterbro used to look like. According to people working for the city, the amount of drug paraphernalia waste has gone down 80 percent since the injection sites opened."

"When the weather's nice, the users here just want to enjoy a beer in the sun like the rest of us. On those days it's also just nicer for them to shoot up outside. That's why it would help if the injection sites had outdoor areas too."

"When you leave the Central Station from the back exit, you walk right into the heart of the Copenhagen drug scene. All kinds of different people show up there to score, including those who would never dream of setting foot in a supervised injection site. There are pensioners here, who sell their meds to the highest bidder."

"Mændenes Hjem has become much more crowded and hectic, because Skyen is attracting a lot of users. The new H17 injection site at Halmtorvet has definitely relieved some of the pressure on them."

"This is brilliant. I'm not sure the policemen who this bike belonged to would appreciate it as much."

"The little nooks in the small streets around the more deserted parts of the district are pretty popular for people looking for some relative privacy."

"We know that a lot of younger drug users are afraid to come to Vesterbro. That's a direct consequence of having these huge fix factories, where everything is so busy and chaotic."