These are my people....

Please see footnote at end of post for photo details
Most of the work I currently do is related to street-dwelling drug users. As a former street-dwelling drug user (I no longer live on the streets), I have an added empathy for this population. I am aware of this "bias" and I am also aware that my story is not their story. Each person has their own story, and this community is not homogeneous, but there are certainly some generalisations one can make. However, most of the time we have these generalisations wrong. Each time I am fortunate enough to spend some time with street-dwelling drug users, I am reminded of how wrong many of the genrealisations are. This is my final facebook post for 2015, that expresses some of my frustration around this:

It was a fitting end to 2015: Central Cape Town doing needle exchange and chatting to service users - the people I choose to serve and learn from. Please don't ever tell me "these people" are:
1. In denial
2. Are not resourceful
3. Don't care
4. Are powerless
5. Should just stop using drugs (and then everything will be OK)
6. Cannot make a contribution

The truth is:
1. They fully understand the implications of drug use, what drives their use, what would help them use more safely or cut down their use. But they are seldom consulted on it.*(see footnote)
2. The resilience I witness is amazing. The skill-sets are vast. The ability to survive in a hostile world is almost beyond belief. The stories of trauma, violence and abuse are shocking, but I do not want to label "these people" as victims. They are survivors.
3. The level of community support and care is evident to see. The compassion they show for one another is clearly visible. They are family. The only family many of them have.
4. These are some of the strongest people I have ever met. They make complex and difficult decisions daily, and contrary to what many people believe, these decisions are often the best decisions they can make in very difficult circumstances.
5. For many, using drugs is what keeps them alive. It is one of the very few acts of meaning that they have in terms of self-preservation, and certainly it is the one consistent thing they have in life. And many of them have stopped using drugs for periods of time, only to find that the world is even crueler and harsher than they thought. To still be rejected. Stopping drugs means losing their street family, their means of coping and often much of their identity all at once.
6. The people I spoke to today all have talents, and are more than capable of making a contribution, and many do - taking each other to hospital. Helping distribute health and hygiene packs.
The truth is that society excludes "these people". The majority of the suffering I see has nothing to do with drugs, but with the way drug users are treated and excluded. Most of us have resources, families and the finances to help us cope with life's tragedies. Many of us take drugs regularly, but enjoy the privilege of a doctor to prescribe and access to pharmaceutical grade medications of consistent dose which we can take in a safe environment.
I will continue to fight and advocate for "these people" in 2016 because "these people" are my people. They are me.
To all of my colleagues, co-advocates, associates and most of all, to those who continue to suffer needlessly due to a lack of compassion, I salute you all.

*Not one person who self-identifies as a user of illicit drugs was consulted on the National Drug Master Plan, and none sits on a local drug action committee - my goal for 2016 is to change that.

Footnote on photo: These are NOT the people I spent the last day of 2015 with. These are members of one of the community advisory groups we regularly consult with around how to improve service delivery and better address the issues they face. All people in this photograph have consented to having their image shown on social media.