Where Have All the Junkies Gone?

In search of the vanished addicts who were once the hallmark of central Vienna’s foremost drug trafficking spot

Since the relocation of the drug scene at Karlsplatz, no junkies can be found in the passage | Photo: Katrin Wolf

People who walk frequently from Karlsplatz or Resselpark to the U-Bahn station, or follow along the passage to Kärntnerstraße, may have noticed this summer that the thickets of drug users and their mangy dogs have now dispersed. Regulars may have also noticed the growing presence of the police.

So what happened to the drug scene at Karlsplatz? Is the city trying to make the station look nicer and maybe more “tourist-friendly”?

On the contrary, the disappearance “has nothing to do with forcing people out of Karlsplatz,” stresses Andrea Jäger, head of the section Public Spaces and Security of the Department for the Coordination of Addiction and Drug Use, affiliated with the City of Vienna.

The relocation of the drug scene has a far more practical reason: Construction work will start soon, and the passage below the outer Ring will, at least for now, be only half as broad as it is today. With 200,000 people passing through every day, bigger groups “hanging out” there – such as the 200 forming the core of the Karlplatz drug scene – are a risk factor, according to Jäger.

“It’s going to be extremely narrow,” she says. “People need to have a feeling of security, and also the feeling that they have the space to get out of the way at any time.“ While the reason for the shift seems to be rather pragmatic, the question as to the future whereabouts of the junkies remains unsolved. A mere eviction, of course, would only relocate the problem to a different place.

To avoid the emergence of a ‘new drug scene’, the Department for the Coordination of Addiction and Drug Use, street workers and the police have worked together to develop a broader concept based on a study that assessed the overall situation and the needs of drug users in Vienna.

It turned out that many of them wanted more opportunities to spend the day indoors, and longer opening hours for public places of refuge. Opened in the early summer, two new centers – the ‘Ganslwirt’ at Esterhazygasse and ‘TaBeNo’ at the Wiedner Gürtel – now cater to these demands. They offer psycho-social as well as medical counseling, and simply a place to spend the day. TaBeNo also offers emergency beds, whose number has now been almost doubled to 26.

“The new centers are very well accepted,” says Robert Öllinger, Manager of the VWS (Verein Wiener Sozialprojekte – The Vienna Assocation of Social Projects).

While the street workers’ offices remain down in the Karlsplatz U-Bahn station – mainly to offer advice and medical counseling as well as First Aid – the needles exchange service has been moved to the new centers.

While the positive response for the new services at the Gürtel and Esterhazygasse may be due to the efforts of the social workers, the intensified presence of the police may have also imposed soft pressure.

“Initiatives to fight drug-related crime have existed since the end of 2008,” Jäger explains. While following a zero-tolerance-policy when it comes to drug dealing, the police do work with the social programs that offer advice and help. Furthermore, the law differentiates between dealers who are themselves addicted and those who are not, while the former are offered the possibility to exchange therapy for punishment.

All of these measures have reduced the number of substance users at Karlsplatz to an average of 40, which is a decrease by about 30%, according to Heike Hromatka, spokeswoman of the Addiction and Drug Use Department. And those who remain at Karlsplatz stay for shorter periods of time. One woman who works in a shop in the passage welcomes this development. The group of drug addicts who used to gather in front of the display window of her shop was no “pretty picture”, and she says she felt disturbed by the noise and the occasional fights.

“Now I also have more customers than before,” she said.

However, the drug problem in Vienna is not worse than in other big cities, according to Öllinger. And while “every metropolis has a certain percentage of addicts, a city has to be able to deal with that”, he adds.

The use of public spaces is vital to everyone in Vienna, a city where life takes place on the street, and where people meet in the squares and parks in summer to have picnics, play music or just chat with friends. And of course, as Jäger stresses, “everyone has the right to use these public spaces.”

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