Every Wednesday a group of volunteers meet at a busy intersection in front of Oslo’s Central Station to distribute food, hygiene products, clothes and shoes to drug addicts. They are so well organized that all runs smoothly and peacefully. They look like friends gathering around a street market, only these volunteers of Gateteam Oslo are wearing yellow vests. Their friendliness and generosity are tackling drug addiction in Oslo.
Siw Indsetviken is the founder of Gateteam Oslo. She runs it in her free time, as a volunteer. Her only reward is to feel grateful that drug addicts have embraced Gateteam Oslo in their lives and thus she can make a positive impact in her city. She believes openness, care and respect are determinants to address drug addiction without punishment and condemnation.
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, Norway has one of the highest fatal overdose rates in Europe, with 80 per million people in 2015, putting it below only Estonia and neighbouring Sweden.
Oslo is an important harbour and trade hub, which makes it easy to bring drugs into the city. It used to have a highly visible community of drug addicts in the 1970s. However, the city simply started looking the other way and policies moved them off the main streets.
Since 2011 Siw Indsetviken has started to bring them back to downtown Oslo every Wednesday.
‘We can stock drug addicts with things that they desperately need. We chat and check how they are doing’, explains Siw. ‘We know most of them by name’. According to the Police Authorities, her work at Gateteam Oslo has contributed to decrease the petty robbery incidents in Oslo, since they provide drug addicts with basic things that they couldn’t otherwise afford’.
But moreover, Siw is raising awareness and making the problem of drug addiction in Oslo visible again. Standing where passers-by can see it first hand is an effective campaign on public space to educate and address drug abuse among citizens, especially youngsters. ‘The drug addicts who come to us every Wednesday are men, women, grandmas, grandpas, entire families, businessmen and young boys; all with different social backgrounds. They happen to be drug addicts. That means that playing with drugs can turn things badly for anybody’, explains Siw.
Oslo is among the top three cities in amphetamine use, and MDMA use has tripled in the city since 2012 according to a study in 2017 by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction analyzing daily wastewater samples at treatment plants over a one-week period in 56 European cities. MDMA is especially popular among young people; taken at parties and festivals.
Sending a strong message to these youngsters in Oslo is high on the city’s agenda. Public spaces are the most effective spaces to start a dialogue with people. These democratic spaces can in fact teach us many things, even if that means making us feel uncomfortable. Cities are edgy places, where conservative, traditional forces collide with unpleasant realities.
When Siw’s father died of cancer in 2011, she remembers ‘it was a very cold day. I saw my father closing his eyes for the last time and felt the urge to help others less fortunate as my father has always taught me’. So she took all her father’s clothes and went to the streets around central station to give everything away. The encounter with a boy on the street, also a victim of drug addiction, was a turning point for her.
In the winter on busy days Gateteam Oslo will have 300 people in 2 hours coming around. In the summer the number increases to around 600 people because they come from other cities to Oslo where drugs are easier to get. Most of them are heroine and cocaine consumers. They are all advised not to consume or sell any drugs on the site. And it works. ‘In so many years we just have a couple of incidents’, says Siw.
Gateteam Oslo is a registered NGO and has no political or religious links to other organizations or the Government; something unusual in Norway. It doesn’t have official permission to occupy the public space either. But the city has never complained. Her work has brought attention to many citizens in Oslo (over 14.000 followers in Facebook) and private businesses. They support her initiative with cash or in-kind donations like Valle Budpartner who gave them a van to transport all the goods and the Comfort Hotel Børsparken and Clarion The Hub who prepare and donate the packed lunches every week.
Oslo has started moving on from simple “keep the problem out of my face” policies to new solutions for drug addiction. Collaboration between bold urban actions like Gateteam Oslo and private businesses can change everything and make cities for all to live in. Every week some people in Oslo are looking forward to Wednesdays.