By Alexandra Fergen
Admittedly, there are more exciting ways of spending your free Sunday afternoon than taking a city tour through Utrecht. At least, that is what I thought – until I came across a flyer of Utrecht Underground: “We offer you a tour you won’t forget: a city tour about the tough life of the homeless and the drug addicts on the streets of Utrecht. Told and shown by the people who have been there and have seen it all.” Intrigued, I signed up.
Shortly afterwards I am plunging into the depths of the city, always dogging the footsteps of Pieter, my 38-year-old tour guide and ex-junkie. We pass the Dom, along the Oudegracht and soon I lose my bearings in the labyrinth of alleys, narrow side streets and rat runs. Pieter, on the contrary, seems to know these places like the back of his hand. No wonder; he roamed them for more than 25 years.
As we walk, he begins to tell me his life story. Pieter started taking drugs at an early age. He began with weed when only twelve years old, but gradually moved on to heroine.
“It’s better than sex, that’s why it is so hard to get away from it.”
One year later he left home. And so his life in the streets of Utrecht, Amsterdam and Groningen began. For a couple of years he managed to stay afloat as a window cleaner. But soon his addiction took over, he tells me: “I worked eight hours a day, but I usually sat six hours of it on the toilet taking drugs. So my boss no longer needed me.” At some point, he would spend more than 400 euros every day on drugs. Desperately needing money, he began to rob shops, deal drugs, steal from people and sometimes even threaten them with a knife to obtain money. I am starting to feel nervous. “Don’t worry,” he assures me. “I stopped doing that a long time ago.” (After a total of fifteen police arrests.)
We reach our first destination: Mariaplaats. What is now a small public park was once a monastery’s garden. It seems an idyllic, little place with all these flowerbeds and benches under tall, green trees – if only it were not for that penetrating pungent smell coming from the nearby walls. Piss, says Pieter. Not long ago this place was a well-known meeting point for more than 50 homeless and junkies. Here they would meet, sleep and ‘use’ all day. I look around but see only three men resting on cardboard boxes in the nearby corner. “Where are all these people now?” I ask Pieter. Back in the 1990s, he explains, the city of Utrecht realized the big problem of homelessness and drug addiction in its streets. To get the people off the streets, the city created shelters and hostels. The night shelters offer bed and showers for two euros per night. The hostels provide permanent accommodation and three meals a day for 300 euros per month. Unemployment and welfare benefits from the Dutch government help most people to pay the costs of the shelters.
We continue walking, while Pieter keeps talking. Not long and we arrive at our next stop: Hoog Catherijne. After spending their day at Mariaplaats, the junkies and homeless would come here for shelter in the night, or even during the day when it became too cold outside. In small groups they would ride the elevators for hours and take drugs in turn, with one always keeping watch in case the police would detect them.
Hoog Catherijne, Pieter says, was one of the few public shelters in the Netherlands where homeless and junkies could stay at night without being chased away by the police. The news spread quickly and attracted people from all over the country – sometimes more than 400. Consequently, theft and criminality around Hoog Catherijne increased so that the police decided to change its policy. Once Hoog Catherijne was no longer an option, people would move to the “Tunnel” near by the station or sleep under cars in car parks. But eventually, just like Hoog Catherijne, the “Tunnel” was shut down too.
Five years ago Pieter decided to drastically change his life. “I was finished with the life I lived.” He signed up for help and began a treatment for drug addiction. First he was put on medication and received Methadone, a synthetic, anti-addictive and reductive opioid for two years. Today Pieter is clean, has his own flat and a job. Apart from his job as a tour guide, he also works as a litter-picker, house painter, and sometimes runs old people’s errands. But out of all these Pieter enjoys working for Utrecht Underground the most.
As we part, he tells me why: “I want people to know how we think, how we lived. I want to tell my story. Here I can.”