I live in Portugal, in the street that used to be called Casal Ventoso - if you google this name, you will find many videos on youtube declaring the area the ex-drug supermarket of Europe, showing streets full of people living in tents, buying drugs and injecting heroin in the streets beside children's nurseries. About 15 years ago, the government of Portugal intervened, knocking down the and shacks people had put up, and offering them accommodation in social housing constucted 5 minutes away, at the end of our road. Drug consumption was decriminalised, and the police shifted their attention away from penalising drug addicts, to searching for the traffickers. Drug rehabilitation and methodone programs were set up, and continue to this day. The program has been a great success and achieved massive victories, but 15 years later, the community that fell victim to the traffickers, in my street, never recovered.
When the drug traffickers moved into our street 30 years ago, all the local services fled. It went from being a 'villagey' place with pharmacicies, a greengrocers, bakery, the post office and cafés, to having nothing. Business shut down and all the services abandoned the area. The young people also moved away, leaving a predominantly elderly population, who had grown up under Portugal's ex-dictatorship, and known police officers murdered in the area by local dealers. They are frail, isolated in their apartments, and have learnt to just keep quiet and keep going.
There is now not even a café or a cash machine within 15 minutes walking distance - a huge distance for the aged with mobility problems and young families with no car. The drug problem has massively reduced, but it appears to be backtracking, and now every day, we look out our windows and see people smoking heroin or crack cocaine in the cars opposite our buildings. Some people also have begun injecting in the street, potentially throwing needles into the grassy areas where our children play. As a young politics student with limited financial resources, when I bought my apartment here a year ago, I only witnessed drug usage once a week or so. Now, it is almost every time I look out my window. All our neighbours agree the drug problem is getting worse again. People are driving to the nearby social housing, buying drugs, and then coming to our 'villagey', isolated little area thinking noone will notice if they take their drugs here.
Our authorities have completely abandoned the area. Every single day, the police go to the social housing, searching cars trying to find drug dealers. They say their resources are too stretched to come to our area and speak to drug users. The local and city council has left the streets to fall into disrepair; they are full of holes, we have no pavements and parents must push their babies in buggies up a narrow, 200 year old street, in the fact of oncoming traffic. I was almost run over twice in the past few months.
There is a beautiful grassy hill and forest area opposite our buildings where the elderly like to walk their dogs, but they have benches to sit and rest on. They struggle to sit down on the ground and then stand back up again, so they don't stop. They don't spend time there. They stay in their apartments, alone, not talking with each other. There is no community spirit, nobody knows anybody because there are no common areas to spend time, and the football court that used to exist at the top of the hill, is now covered with overgrown plants and the fencing has fallen down. The area looks and feels like an abandoned ghost town. Neither the council or police has responded to any of our complaints.
My neighbours and I have developed a plan to get the regeneration of the community in movement. We plan to:
Goal 1: Put benches and 'games' tables in the green areas for the elderly to sit on and for people to spend time there. This could get people talking and interacting with one another. It is only through interaction that relationships will forge and possible solutions to collective problems will get discussed. Secondly, it is in the green areas that we see drug traffickers doing drop-offs on a weekly basis. In the past couple of months, I have been up there watering plants I put there, and I have noticed that when I and others are out there, the drug traffickers do not come. If we increase the public presence in these places, we will deter criminals.
Goal 2: Repair the local football court. To do this, we need to clear the ground, repair the fences and put new goals up. We hope this will create something for the 'local boys' to do other than get involved in crime. The court is basically a concrete 'square'. It would also serve as an excellent place to do local events such as Tai Chi classes, debates, public meetings. social dances, 'baby picnics' etc. It is in an area surrounded by green, a truly beautiful, albeit abandoned place. The court can be our community forum, and again, by increasing the public presence, we will deter criminals.
Goal 3. Buy a screen, projector, and some yoga mats to hold open-air film showings. Tai Chi classes and football games are wonderful, but nothing attracts people, builds morale or boosts pride in the community, like 'big events' such as ootdoor cinema. Depending on the film, it could attract a diverse segment of the community, attracting children, adolescents and the elderly alike. Our hope is that when people watch the films, they will talk, and the community will start to grow. I am an English teacher and experienced at facilitating events to get people interacting. I am confident we can pursue strategies to maximise communication at such events.
Goal 4: Repaint the walls that have been covered in graffiti for over 20 years. If things are going to change around here, people need to see it happen. What better than a 'clean page' to communicate that message?
My hope, is that together, we will become stronger. Through community, individuals will not be drawn into the world of crime and drugs and we will help eachother, through sickness, poverty, family crisis and anything else that might bring us down.
Finally, I would like to state that progress is already occurring. I have spent my own money buying and growing flowers and aromatic herbs to plant in the green areas. I go out with my hosepipe and water the whole area during months of intense heat. I pick up litter. People see this, and and they get inspired. The elderly have come to talk to me, express their pent-up frustrations and offer suggestions. Neighbours have begun talking with me in the street, asking what I'm doing and offering to help. When I tell neighbours of the help I have received, hope builds, and others come forward to offer help. Teenagers come to help me carry equipment. 3 months ago, I was alone. Now, there are 4 of us working on these problems. People want things to change. We just need a little help to get things moving. Thank you.