Who Pays For Our Policy?
by Ryan Lester
Welcome back to another blather about our conversations on the streets of Edinburgh. Originally, I tried to squeeze everything into one post, but it just got longer and longer. In the end, I wanted to give this section its own post because it felt like the most important part of what we did. At least once every day as I sat out in one of those chairs, I was joined by a user or someone in recovery. All the stories were unique, of course, and I will not mar them by trying to recall someone else’s trauma. All had resoundingly similar themes: homeless (with a high percentage having been so all their adult lives), working class Scot’s from large families that had exhausted their last vestiges of hope and trust from the people close to them. Most were just happy for someone to listen. You would think being homeless during one of the busiest liberal arts festivals in the world might be a bonus. In reality, the busier it is, the lonelier you feel as the world just moves on around you, always assuming the next person will help.
Their stories were often heart-breaking, and relatable, reminding us that this could happen to anyone. The similarities between their stories show that a lack of education (emotional and scholarly), a lack of any financial safety, and a run of bad luck can put anyone on their arse. This idea that “they made their choices” to become an addict is so dangerously dismissive. I know so many people, particularly in the entertainment world, that have the most casual relationship with drugs. Yet we keep pushing this narrative that it is the ‘bad choice’ that led these addicts to where they are. I understand that some people may have more addictive personalities than others but I believe it is entirely dependent on that person's upbringing and social situation, not some genetic predisposition to drug abuse. One of the worst parts for me is that a lot of these people were not in any kind of recovery at all. They had been weaned off of anything illegal and were now drinking through every single day, and that was somehow better? It is in no way just about getting people to say no, it is about helping them fill the hole in themselves with something other than inebriation.
Everyone openly acknowledged that there is support in place for them from the government, so it got to the point where it felt like we would belittle them by offering the same advice so many had before us. So, in the end, our tactic was to sit, listen, and hear their stories. The hardest part for them seemed to be finding the self-determination or even just the value in trying to make that change. Many of them had failed and relapsed too many times to ever believe recovery was truly possible. This is where the branding of criminality really starts to rile me up.
Our whole view of drug related criminals is inherently classist. We have openly acknowledged, and sometimes praised drug use in celebrities, politicians, and Wall Street bankers. Not in every case, but often addictions are kept and enabled for entire lifetimes, so long as you have the funding and support around you to maintain it. Mental health takes a battering but, from a legal sense, these addictions are mostly looked over. This bothers me a lot: the fact that the only people answering for these crimes are the lower classes (although judging from recent events, it is not just drug related crimes the rich seem to get away with).
I do not believe that the people I met should be branded as criminals because it puts fear of seeking any kind of help for their problem into them. The support is there already, but it is so linked to the money they receive and the accommodation they use that if social services were to report their use they could be back on the street. It should be noted that these are people often in charity/religious run hostels rather than public. Something I didn’t know was that while in any kind of heroin or methamphetamine recovery you lose your right to vote. Although I understand the basis behind this (that you should be of sound mind to vote) but for some people that is just another ticked box of dehumanisation. I feel like there are plenty more people not of a sound mind to vote for reasons that have nothing to do with drugs, but we won’t go there.
From the users I spoke to, even with the support being there for them, most could not bring themselves to go seek it out. You can boil this down to “attitude” if you like, but the sheer number we spoke to about it talking along similar lines makes this far too concurrent a theme to be ignored. Our assistance for them should not remain blindly idle unless sought. These people need to feel valued and appreciated enough to care about their own lives. How we do that I do not know, but the breakdown in community and the increase of the bystander effect (people feel like they do not need to help someone when there are large numbers of other people around because “someone else will”) in largely populated areas has been detrimental. With homelessness a bigger problem than we have ever seen, now is the time to really try something new. I have only scratched the surface of what we experienced in Edinburgh, but for now please pitch in. Tell us what you think. Write something of your experience and we will post it as well. Message us, call us out online, whatever you want. If I am lucky enough to have this read by anyone I did meet on the streets of Edinburgh, please get in touch and continue our wonderful conversations.