The small South Wales city of Swansea is in the grip of a heroin epidemic. How do I know? Well, I’ve been living with a group of young Welsh heroin addicts, on and off, for the last three months. The needle exchange where they flock to every day to change their works recently reported that in the last four years there has been a 178 percent increase in the number of registered heroin users in the city.
This is Becky in her flat. Weeks later she would be evicted after being accused of selling drugs by another resident.
Why has this happened? From what I discovered, the supply is driving the demand. Swansea was once a thriving port with a lot of heavy industry, but the Thatcher years and outsourcing to foreign labour has meant that unemployment is high and chances for working-class young people to obtain work is low. It is, however, possible to make upwards of £1,500 a DAY as a medium-level heroin dealer.
The people I met in my time here told me that heroin has become easier to acquire than cannabis in Swansea, leading to a rise in long-term addiction and the associated spiral of decline.
The result? Lots more heroin dealers selling cheap, cut heroin to an increasingly younger market. If that wasn’t enough, another report recently revealed that in Wales, in 13 years, the number of people contracting hepatitis C through needles is up 1,612 percent.
What else did I find out? Well, lots of other things that statistics can’t record. In an hour you can know more about someone than three months of mindless commuter talk in London. Life is different here.
On a Sunday morning a local man called John Frith, who works for the Swansea Drugs Project (SANDS), walks me around the city. John has seen more than most and has the courage to use this to help out those addicted to heroin. He is well respected here and I am quickly introduced to a number of different faces and opinions that will shape my next four days.
I fall quickly into the lives of people who move very fast. There is Becky, talking aloud to herself with no control of the roaming voices she says are tormenting her thoughts, her fingers badly bent from diabetes. And there is Max, deep vein thrombosis rotting his legs, ridden with hepatitis C, 42 and facing a bleak future. After years on the streets, this couple hold down a council house together on the edge of the city.
Here’s Becky preparing a clean rig for using heroin.
Walking by the water, I see Simon fishing for mullet, his dog Charlie feeding on scraps from the adjacent pub. He scratches his thick beard and recalls youthful trips to Ireland by boat, surviving only with “eyes on the back of my head”. The boats don’t go to Cork anymore.
Walking up Wind Street, I stop with Joanne, who is very nervous. The man who assaulted her has been released from prison and is expected back in the city soon. Her story bears a saddening resemblance to many others I spoke with. “I started drinking after my father [committed suicide], but when my mother went [when I was 15], then it got worse and worse,” the story usually goes.
Becky and Neil have been together a short time. They lie back on Becky’s bed and talk of stealing fish-tanks to flog for drug money. Becky is not long out of prison, having been caught attempting to sell drugs to an undercover policeman. As they prepare to shoot up, the routine flows well—all the elements are clean, having been obtained from SANDS—and soon they float away. In most cases, heroin addiction often seems to start young, and more often with the involvement of a family member who has the wrong set of ideas.
I meet some people only once and then they are gone, often in no real direction but with a sense of urgency. Lee and Leanne are hunting for bond money, for example. They need a £200 deposit for a six-month lease. At night they are sofa-surfing with friends—part of the “hidden homeless” the statistics never account for.
John had told me about a young couple who could be too chaotic for me to follow and engage with. Neither Amy nor Cornelius had a phone and so it took a chance encounter and introduction at a breakfast run for the homeless to start the talk. Amy was just out of hospital after impaling herself on a fence; Cornelius helped her through. They have been together almost four years. Over the next few days I would spend a lot of time with them, mostly at night when they would drink big bottles of White Storm cider. They describe trying to come off heroin as being “like the flu, but a thousand times worse”. Living on the streets, their life is like a twisted game of musical chairs. For example, sleeping in the gap behind the solicitors’ wall is no longer an option because they had just been chased from there. Later that day, Cornelius finds an old mattress, and the new plan is to squat a vacant garage they spotted earlier. They talk openly about wanting the life most of us know. Amy would like to study psychology. “You can see people working and doing things with their lives, and I don’t—that’s what depresses me the most,” she says.
These two are not used to a support system of any kind. A family member of Amy’s turned her to heroin and prostitution when she was 14. The last night I saw them, they’d had a row. They’d downed three litres of White Storm in under 40 minutes. Amy, who is only 18, lost a child last year. She and Cornelius are both on methadone and each drink three three-litre bottles of cider a day. Without the drink, they have morning shakes and wild sweats, distorted logic and a desperate struggle.
Adam Patterson is the associate producer of “Swansea Love Story”, a film by Andy Capper and Leo Leigh, broadcast soon on VBS.TV. Watch the trailer here.
Becky and Neil, her partner, preparing the heroin for use.
An open note to Vice readers from Cornelius.
Needles ready for distribution at the Swansea Drugs Project (SANDS).
Discarded needles are often found in parks and alleys. Many users condemn this lazy practice because disposal kits are available at the Swansea Drugs Project. However, with limited funding, the facility is closed on evenings and weekends.
This is one of the regular places homeless people inject, offering a primitive kind of privacy and protection.
Discarded bicycles and buggies line the River Tawe.
Becky stares out of her living room window.
Max and Becky in their living room.
Roses and Special Brew on a windowsill.
Becky fixes her phone while her boyfriend Max works on his computer. Though Becky is only 29, the couple have been together for 14 years. The first eight of these were spent on the streets, but now they share a council flat and enjoy the space and the security.
Becky and a framed photo of The Clash.
Amy and Cornelius arguing after they discovered a garage they hoped to squat has been sealed up. With no other sleeping options for the night and their cider finished, they are left struggling for ideas.
After years of prolonged drug use, Becky has developed severe headaches and paranoia.
Max organising the deliverance of some of his “medicine”.
Becky outside her front door.
Becky showing her tattoos shortly after taking a hit.
Lee and his dog outside SANDS.
Becky and Neil resting on her bed.
Amy and Cornelius with their bottle of White Storm cider.
Amy eating free food distributed by SANDS at their weekly women’s morning, established to encourage people on the streets to engage in healthcare.
Becky and Neil after taking heroin. Becky has recently been housed at a project for people on heroin. At 21, she had been on and off the streets for more than seven years.
This homeless person wakes early each morning with the sun. He prefers sleeping at the beach to the town because he can be alone. Here, he is drying his dew-sodden mattress.
Clint and his friend looking for a vein to shoot up in.
Cornelius returns from the shop, having discovered a mattress in a skip.
Amy and Cornelius arguing over their cider.
Amy and Cornelius taking their mattress to an old garage they believe to be vacant, which would provide good shelter for the night ahead.
Cornelius and Amy on the steps of the Swansea Drugs Project. The project is a lifeline to users in the city, offering a needle exchange, blood tests and an informal atmosphere.
Amy sleeping on the street while Cornelius searches for money for more cider.
Lee kisses his girlfriend as his friends organise their possessions.