Transit, Brussels – closeup of a person holding their hands clasped together on top on their knees as they are sitting. They hands have many scabs and injuries.

What It's Like to Be an Addict – and Homeless

Stagnation, setbacks, missed opportunities, and a glimmer of hope: This is life when you struggle with addiction but are trying to get better.
Charlotte Verbruggen
Brussels, BE
Charlotte Verbruggen
Brussels, BE
photos by Zoé Leclercq

This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

Transit is a non-profit organisation in Brussels that’s welcomed homeless people with addiction since 1995. The programme allows drug users to stay at a recovery facility for 13 days, and receive medical and psychological support. The focus is not on ending the patients’ drug use entirely, but helping them control their consumption to minimise risks. 


In 2022, 693 users stayed at Transit. People who pass through these doors are already at the beginning of their healing process. Their first step is deciding to coexist with what’s become their addiction. The journey is long and punctuated with regrets, stagnation and missed opportunities. But the hope for a better, more balanced life pushes them to continue the fight. 

For some, Transit is a fresh start, but most people here have been through this struggle before. I met some of them in their new, temporary home to hear more about their journey. They all agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, so names have been changed.

Stephanie, 43

Transit, Brussels – close up of hands laying on a blue blanket. The nails are painted a metallic red and are slightly chipped.

Stephanie wears her mother’s silver ring and the many burn marks left behind by her drug use. Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq

Stephanie is sitting alone on one of the reception benches. Despite being in her 40s, her dark eyes have something of a little kid about them. With nails painted bright red, her pants and shoes sparkly, Stephanie doesn’t seem like a reserved person, but she prefer being by herself – especially when it comes to sharing her story. In her 12-square-metre room, which she shares with another woman, she slowly recounts her battle to overcoming addiction.

Like many people here, Stephanie’s had a rollercoaster of a life. Seven years ago, she lost her mother. “It's all been a bit of a downfall from there,” she says. The moment marked a turning point in her relationship with drugs. She began using more “to try to numb the sadness” and recreational use gave way to addiction. She lost control and found herself trapped. 


This shift marked the end of her previous life. She was forced to live on the streets after squandering her inheritance on cocaine – “one of my great regrets”. Years of violence and abuse, and several unsuccessful attempts to stay sober, all led her to today. 

This time feels different. The last time she used made her feel “total disgust”. It was a wake-up call – she felt she’d gone too far. Stephanie has managed to stay sober for ten days, but she’s stopped using for a year and a half before without it sticking.

“What bothers me is there's always a relapse,” Stephanie says with anger. “I often wonder, ‘What is relapsing, why do I relapse?’” At times, she feels suicidal.

After Transit, Stephanie will head to a shelter where drugs are prohibited. She thinks it's particularly challenging for her to resist right now, though, because she’s been dreaming a lot about her mother. “On the upside, this also means she is close to me,” she says. “I wish she could forgive me.”

Henri, 58

Transit, Brussels – closeup of a man's hand about to flicker a ball into an old foosball table

Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq

“Lift your players when I shoot,” says 58-year-old Henri, who has a three day-old beard covering his cheeks. The foosball ace is a regular at Transit. Sober for six years, Henri was once grappling with alcoholism, but still comes around three times a week because the environment gives him stability.


Henri sees himself as an example, because he’s managed to quit for good after about ten attempts. But even when you’re sober, a relapse can lurk behind the slightest vulnerability, and he knows that. One of the main reasons he can’t drink today is because he takes medication that doesn't mix well with alcohol. This is the solution he found after searching for 30 years – a sort of a trump card, his lucky break. 

Henri spent part of his childhood in an orphanage in a different country before he was adopted by a well-off family in Belgium. During a visit to his old orphanage, he learned that his father struggled with drinking, too. Alcoholism often runs in families, and research has confirmed that genetics play a role in predisposing people to developing addiction problems.

In Henri’s case, it was his adoptive family who first introduced him to alcohol around age eight, thinking that an education on quality booze should be part of his bourgeois upbringing. These initial experiences left their mark, but things took a turn for the worse in high school, where he’d often skip class to drink with his friends. Thanks to his good grades and privileged background, no one really looked into his relationship with booze for a while. In the end, though, social status didn’t make him – or anybody else – immune to addiction.


Marc-Antoine, 28

Transit, Brussels – closeup of a man's hands rolling a cigarette. He is wearing a grey sweatshirt and blue jeans.

Marc-Antoine rolling a cigarette. Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq

A coffee in one hand, a rolled cigarette in the other, Marc-Antoine stands in a corner of the courtyard. He doesn’t seem like he wants to talk to anyone. His drug of choice is hash. “Sometimes, I get a hotel room for a night to smoke,” he says. “Then I slow down and stop for a while before doing it again.”

Marc-Antoine sees addiction as a trap – trying to quit can fail at every stage. If he doesn't talk to other users here, it's also to avoid being influenced. As an alternative to his consumption, he found himself gravitating towards tattoos. “And yet, I actually hate needles,” he says, which is hard to believe with a face and body covered in ink.

He dreams of travelling to Switzerland, Luxembourg and Eastern Europe. “I’d like to go to Ukraine and Russia,” he says. “Even now, yeah, I don't care.” For these plans, he needs money. That's why he's at Transit – his 13-day stay allows him to save. Money is one of the reasons that prompted him to slow his consumption. “It also made me violent,” he says. Marc-Antoine previously spent three and a half years in prison.

Marin, 50

Transit, Brussels – A dark room with a vertical window showing a church somewhere in the distance

The view of Brussels fromone of Transit's studio apartments. Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq

Marin, AKA “the Frenchman” or “the Elder”, as he introduced himself, is a 50-year-old man who looks like he’s in his late 30s. All smiles, he exudes confidence. It's his first time at Transit, but he already knows everyone from the streets. 


Marin has been here for over a week and has been meeting with his social worker to prepare for the future. “I want to beat this,” he says, as if reciting a prayer. He touches the wood of the window frame. One of his main goals is to reconnect with his seven children, whom he speaks of with as much pride as regret. He hasn't really seen them grow up.

All his life, Marin has been behind stoves. In the restaurant business, it's hard to avoid cocaine, he says. One evening at work, a Colombian woman caught his eye: “A siren in a white dress,” he describes with a smile. She stole his heart, and he followed her to Barcelona.

At her place, three kilos of white powder were waiting for him on a silver tray. He was young, and drugs haven’t left him since. He had children with her, and he misses them dearly. His 23-year-old son recently visited him. “He deals now,” Marin says. “When I saw him he had a huge scar. I told him to stop, but all of this is my fault.” 

Due to the nature of the people housed here, Transit can also be a source of temptation. All around him are “limpers”, as Marin calls them, who can push him back into consuming again. The previous night, another user offered him crack. “Here, people don't suggest going for a jog, getting some fresh air, watching a movie, or flirting, ” he sighs. “He told me he had a pipe, and I accepted.”


Marin is passionate about food. Opening his own fast food place is his dream recovery project. “I love cooking, I love making people feel good,” he says. “When the plates come back empty, it makes me so happy!" When another Transit resident told him there’d be veal stew on the menu for lunch, Marin was overjoyed. “We eat well here,” he says. “We even get dessert in the evening.”

After travelling and working in different countries, Marin landed in Belgium, where he’s been struggling to get a stable job. But having a roof on his head is still a distant step in his journey. “I shouldn't even think about finding an apartment now, because I’ll end up hanging out with limpers again,” he says. “And when you do, you lose everything. First, I have to do finish my detox, then rehab.” Next month, he’ll get a spot at a hospital to start withdrawal treatment.

Everyone at Transit is hopeful, but most people who come through here don’t manage to leave drugs behind completely. The path to recovery is long, perhaps endless, and each challenge can push you backwards. That's why staying at Transit isn’t about quitting, but rather transitioning to another stage – a stage where addiction no longer entirely engulfs your life.


Scroll down to see more pictures.

Transit, Brussels – close-up of a steel table with packaged syringes, drops and other medical supplies

At Transit, users receive sterile materials to consume safely. Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq

Transit, Brussels – long white corridor with a small table and a plant towards the end.

The users staying at transit have to drop off their belongings in a locker before entering the facilities. Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq

Transit, Brussels – close-up of male hands playing UNO.

Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq

Transit, Brussels – close-up of a small sink in a room with blue tiles and a small mirror.

Stephanie's bathroom. Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq

Transit, Brussels – Closeup of a bedroom with a single, metal-frame bad low to the ground.

All rooms at Transit are shared with one other person. Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq

Transit, Brussels – Man sleeping on the floor of a room with orange walls, blue couches and mismatched furniture.

All people at Transit can lie down and hang out in the resting room, whether they are staying or just passing by. Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq

Transit, Brussels – closeup of hands cutting apples into slices.

Photo: Charlotte Verbruggen and Zoé Leclercq