NEWS

OKANA: Eviction notice is served on drug help center

In the language of the experts, they are known as «street users,» people for whom the use of toxic substances is the last stage of a life spent in abandoned houses and in the shifting meeting places around Exarchia, Omonia and Vathis Square where drugs are sold. The only steady factor in their lives is their date with their dealer. Their refuge is the Help Center, run by the Organization Against Drugs (OKANA) and housed in an old building owned by the Greek Red Cross, at 21 3rd September Street. It is not a program for those determined to change their lives, such as the rehabilitation centers. Nor does it provide alternatives, such as the methadone programs. It is a place where young people and adults living in miserable conditions in the heart of Athens seek help for health problems, a brief respite from the streets and above all, human communication. It is a health unit, the only one in Greece solely for drug addicts, aimed at reducing the damage done by drug abuse, in the spirit of the concept of secondary healthcare as set by the European Union for the care of drug addicts and public health. In the five years since the center opened, more than 4,000 addicts have made thousands of visits, whether to see a doctor, for a cup of coffee, a sandwich, a chat, or to exchange syringes. The center has collected 300,000 infected syringes, a step toward preventing the spread of infectious diseases such as AIDS and hepatitis. «By coming in contact with our services, these people gradually change their view about health and might begin to think seriously about joining a rehabilitation community,» said Teta Papoutsopoulou-Diamantopoulou, director of the center, who agreed to be interviewed by Kathimerini. But just as the staff were beginning to plan to expand the program, the Greek Red Cross set in motion plans to evict the center, whose rental agreement for the building is due to expire. The center, which operates in the most sensitive area of Athens, right in the midst of the drug world, offers unique services. Its mobile unit has responded to calls to attend 3,500 addicts, of whom 500 were in a drug coma after overdosing. Can you tell us about the syringe exchange program? We give each addict up to 50 syringes a week, in exchange for as many used ones. So, it is not a syringe-dispensing program from automatic machines, as in other European countries. We are now thinking of changing the system by giving two syringes in exchange for one. This is the point of an exchange program – to collect syringes from squares, playgrounds and the streets in order to reduce the incidence of infectious diseases and deaths. Last year, the number of deaths was reduced, for the first time, to 260 from 321 in 2001, and I think that our center contributed to that. Do you need a special mobile unit for overdose cases? Our mobile unit, which is notified by the National First Aid Center (EKAB), has saved lives and has a 100 percent success rate with overdose cases. We will get another two units from EKAB and a motorcycle, and we are recruiting specialized anaesthetists. We have asked for an intensive care unit here, because the hospital units are so overcrowded that these cases get overlooked. When addicts receive the first dose of medicine they come round, but once they get up they fall over again. They run away from the hospital because they are afraid of being arrested. Either that or they attack the doctors for bringing them out of their stupor. We want a three-bed unit here so that we can treat them for the five hours it usually takes and then keep them under observation. How do addicts react to the program? They are approached through our street work program, staffed by experts, usually former addicts themselves. The word spreads and one thing leads to another. About 4,000 users have come to us, and come back for more; we have had 30,000 visits in just a few years, despite the fact that these people are not easy to approach and they usually steer clear of health and psycho-social support services. They usually come running to us for help with their health, for psychological support. We tell them that until they decide to go into rehabilitation, there are a few things they can do to stay as well as possible. Nearly all suffer from hepatitis, their teeth are rotten, with far worse symptoms than non-addicts. We give them the basics for preventive care – a first-aid kit of sterilized cotton, antiseptic, syringes, condoms. What approach do you use? The secret of communication is respect for the person and a strict adherence to boundaries, because addicts know no boundaries; they manipulate people’s emotions. You have to be steady, fair and use strong arguments. At first they refuse to stick to appointments, only those with their dealer. We have slowly learnt how to operate. That is why I am afraid that if we are evicted from this building, it will affect our work badly. These people are sensitive and vulnerable. They don’t easily accept a change of