Outreach with GAIA Paris

From a distance, Porte de la Villette looks like a colourful park. A small market perhaps, buzzing with people. But on closer inspection, the scene changes. Once in the park there is little left of the bright image. A very diverse mix of people gather here - sellers and buyers of mainly crack meet in the park for a quick exchange.

Several hundreds of people live here more or less permanently. Others come to buy and stay for a few hours. A tent can be rented for a few days of binge smoking. The inhabitants and visitors have developed a social system within the park. There are ‘bosses’ an old woman who is called ‘the mayor’, tents are rented out to visitors for sleeping, sex work and/or a more private space to use drugs, there are shops selling food and supplies. There is even a self-made harm-reduction tent. Its owners tell us people can ask them for advice on drug-use or have a lie-down when they used too much drugs. The social workers and inhabitants tell us you must be alert when you are here. People are friendly, inviting us into their homes and telling us about themselves. Fights can, however, easily break out. One of the social workers says that because of the violence and intensity she witnesses, she won’t be able to cope with her job for long. 

In June a group of Mainliners joined the GAIA Paris team on their outreach route. GAIA is a harm reduction organisation that focuses on improving the circumstances for people who use drugs and reducing the risks of drug use. Porte de la Villette is one of the most important spots where GAIA staff offers basic health checks and harm reduction information and commodities. The city of Paris has appointed this area to the growing group of homeless people who use crack cocaine. The area is condoned and there is supervision of the city health service. It looks like a huge open-air drug consumption room, but the police comes twice a week to sweep all the improvised shelters and tents away. Within hours after each sweep people rebuild their make-shift homes, in an endless cycle. The political point to all this is hard to find.  

Many people who live here have recently migrated to France. Some are send via informal networks in their country of origin to take a temporary place in a fluid circuit of small-scale dealers. Others have arrived in Europe empty handed and now find themselves with no other option than to survive on the streets. Some are part of close-knit networks, others are alone with little idea how to turn the situation for the better. We meet a few of the camp leaders who seem to oversee the sales flow and have an obvious stronghold over some of the people that sit around them.

While speaking to the people who live and work in the park it becomes clear that no permanent, humane solution for this open drug scene close to the center of Paris is in sight.

Together with five other organisations, GAIA and Mainline are involved in a European Project that focuses on vulnerable migrants who use drugs in the EU. With this project we hope to understand the harm reduction needs of people with migration background better and we hope to improve service access and policies that focus on this group. When seeing Paris – it is clear that this is an urgent and much needed effort. 

Find more information about this project

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