Exploring the Amsterdam Underground: the voice of (ex)drug addicts

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Rainbow Group Foundation has arranged Amsterdam Underground city walks in Amsterdam for many years now. In these tours, ex-homeless and drug addicts introduce a different side of the city.

It is a very sunny day in Amsterdam and the city is packed with tourists. Everyone is enjoying nice weather and everything is so cosy: gezellig. But I am going to see Amsterdam from the other side, to know how life is as a homeless in Amsterdam.

Victor is one of the guides who take school groups and tourist a walk around Amsterdam.  He shows people where he used to live and shares his life story with them.  Underground Amsterdam tour is an activation program aiming to give ex-drug users work experience, and at the same time encourage them to find a real job.  Underground tour successfully started in Utrecht , and then Rainbow Group started a pilot in Amsterdam years ago.

Amsterdam Underground tour of the Red Light District (Photo: The Rainbow Group Foundation)

“It is still not easy time for former drug addicts, but activation programs like Underground tour has helped them, and you can really see them blossoming,” Rainbow Group Foundation’s PR and communication spokeswoman Jasperine Schupp says.

The starting point of the tour is in a café near central station, and he leads them to nearby streets.  Victor is a charming storyteller full of enthusiasm.  He is wearing a yellow jumper with Underground printed on it. One side of his body is paralyzed, which makes him walk a bit awkwardly. We begin the tour and head to the Red Light District. As soon as we start walking he explains about the cameras that control the whole area. There are signs of their existence everywhere.

”It all changed ten years ago when the cameras came. In the 80’s there was a lot of addicts and dealers in the streets. In a way it was all very charming. Now there is cameras monitoring the area and the police might give you a fine if you are holding a lighter as it is considered part of the users equipments. If you sit in the street and you close your eyes, you might get fined,” Victor says.

Use spaces /drug consumption rooms

We are walking towards the Red Light District. Nowadays it is one of the most monitored places in Amsterdam. We arrive near a space called Drug Consumption Room which is given to drug users to use drugs in a safe environment. There are several rooms like this in Amsterdam, as the use of spaces like this are an important link in the Dutch drug policy on harm reduction. In 2010, there were 24 rooms in 25 different cities in The Netherlands.  The initial projects were created by HUK Amsterdam –project which allowed using drugs freely. Rainbow Foundation Group manages three operating rooms in Amsterdam. Most rooms can use various forms of social and medical assistance. Victor also used the room when he was still using drugs.

The tour continues to Oude Hoogstraat, a street that had a swarm of drug addicts and dealers when Victor was homeless. Now there are just tourists, flower shops and small boutiques.

“The street selling has stopped and it is better that way. It is so easy to the suppliers by phone now. The dealers come to your place or you go to theirs," Victor says.

Touring Amsterdam's Underground around the Oude Kerk
(Photo: Rainbow Group Foundation)

We walk again, but now far from our starting point, though everything is so close in Amsterdam that is not a long tour. Victor stops and shows how he used to steal bikes. In his opinion 70 percent of the bikes are not locked properly. That is why his main income also came from stealing bikes when he was homeless.  He explains when, one time, he worked as a drug mule from South America to The Netherlands.

Victor’s story

Victor has been clean since 2006, or only a “recreational user,” as he puts it. He was living on the street over 10 years ago and he has lost a lot because of the old life. He is HIV positive, and an infection led to paralysis. It was a vicious circle of going to jail and getting released again for him.

“It was just prison in, prison out and sleeping at friends’ houses. It all happened in intervals,” Victor says.

Finally, when he was thrown in jail one final time, the police offered a better deal. They promised a house, and work or study, but in order to get this better life, he had to take urine tests to show that he is staying clean.

“One time I got caught for using drugs. Then they cancelled my program and I was on the street again. I was so disappointed about that, and that is when I got HIV virus and other stuff. I went to the Salvation Army and got a roof over my head and I was so happy I was not on the street anymore. I started using methadone and I am still taking it sometimes,” Victor says.

He is explaining enthusiastically about his new joy: work and love that keep him on the right track. He is doing a lot of volunteer work, and he is on the client board of GGD Amsterdam, which decides the client list for methadone.

The tour is nearly at the end and it is more about the guide’s stories rather than actually seeing the underground world. As it is hard to find the original places where, for example, Victor hung out when he was homeless. They are either under construction area, or have changed very much.

Problem wiped out

Harm reduction has long been a pillar of the Dutch health and social policy for drug users. Rainbow Group Foundation has been working for 35 years on this approach and has a wide range of harm reduction services in its care.

Non-governmental organizations have arranged many houses for the homeless people and the system protects them. There are shelters and drop-in centers for drug addicts. Things are fairly good, unless you are a foreigner with no legal documents.

A guide tells his tale on the Amsterdam Underground tour (Photo: Rainbow Group Foundation)

The nature of the problem has changed; drug users have significantly less life-threatening health problems and incidents, but the effects of prolonged drug use often includes long-term problems, such as psychological issues, but also long problems and hepatitis C liver problems. In addition, integrated care, a community approach and especially housing programs ensured that the issue is no longer seen in the public space.

“As long as this problem exists, drug addicts should not be wiped out from the streets,” remarks Jasperine

“Often it is a combination of different things like psychiatric and drug problems. Then one thing falls and this can happen to anyone, and you can end up being homeless," Jasperine reminds.

“Drug users and homeless people are still there. Due to the fact that the Salvation Army gives you clothes, you do not have to look dirty. You can even get a shower for free. Different Christian organizations and the church help you. The church gives you 12,50 euros four times a year and if you don’t have food, they buy you food,” but Victor points out that you have to repay the money.

“The police have a zero tolerance with homeless people so they remove them as soon as they see them," Victor says

Victor thinks most of the homeless and drug problems have now been moved to the east side of Amsterdam.

“Still people who want to live under the bridge, there is still people who do not want to have any treatment. You won’t see them walking around ... [they] won’t stay for long. Maybe they will play music and walk around,” Victor thinks.

Tickets for the Amsterdam Underground tour are €10 per person, based on a group size of eight people. Tours may be booked in English or Dutch.