Drug users, like the homeless and other marginalised groups, are among those most at risk of contracting COVID-19; in the current context, associations providing services to these individuals in Luxembourg and beyond are thus faced with the task of balancing government restrictions and safety on the one hand and the continued provision of support to these vulnerable people on the other.

In this context, Chronicle.lu got in touch with the Comité national de défense sociale (CNDS), a non-profit association that has been supporting Luxembourg’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged people since 1967, to learn about the measures it has taken to continue its work while protecting its staff and beneficiaries from this new invisible threat.

To offer some background, the CNDS was initially set up to assist former prisoners in their social reintegration in the Grand Duchy. The structure has since expanded its services to support drug and alcohol addicts and anyone else who might be “in danger of deviance or marginalisation”. The CNDS runs several services such as the “Vollekskichen” community kitchen and the Abrigado drug addiction centre, both of which are located in Luxembourg-Bonnevoie. Other services include the “Nei Aarbecht” employment programme which helps the unemployed re-enter the job market, the “Wunnen” housing programme which offers temporary shelter for the homeless and the “Naturaarbechten” programme where marginalised people can get involved in nature conservation projects. The “Services de l’Entraide” (mutual aid services) also offer employment assistance in various sectors to socially marginalised individuals.

During a telephone interview with Chronicle.lu, Raoul Schaaf, the current Director of CNDS, explained that rather than seeing increased demand for services since the coronavirus outbreak, fewer people (around 100-120 people) had been making use of certain services such as the Vollekskichen in recent weeks. He attributed this development to communication issues since many beneficiaries knew that the restaurant had closed (like all other restaurants in Luxembourg) but were unaware that the kitchen now offers a take-away service. This new service, which is available seven days a week between 11:30 and 13:00, allows beneficiaries to collect their meals from the restaurant windows to be eaten outside. As the weather improves, they can also sit outside on stools, while respecting the necessary safety distance; for many recipients this could be their only time sitting rather than standing up the whole day.

Concerning Abrigado, Raoul Schaaf explained that the centre normally welcomes around 180 to 200 clients per day. He confirmed that the on-site syringe exchange, drug consumption rooms and first aid service would remain open during the coronavirus crisis, although only four or five people are allowed in at a time. To help protect staff, work is divided between five teams, each working two days. Other measures include securing protective masks and providing hygiene tutorials. Regarding safety measures being taken by beneficiaries themselves, Mr Schaaf noted that an increasing number of people were arriving at the CNDS infrastructures with their own protective masks.

Moreover, two Dixie portable toilets recently opened on the Abrigado site. Raoul Schaaf assured that these essential services were being monitored to avoid drug overdoses and are only open during the centre’s opening hours to ensure safety.

Speaking about the CNDS shelter providing the homeless and vulnerable with a place to sleep overnight, Raoul Schaaf stressed that staff were taking all necessary measures to ensure safety and to keep the virus out of these shared spaces. He confirmed that there were a total of 42 beds available, including twelve reserved exclusively for women. Concerning precautionary measures in the current context, he stated that staff are taking the temperature of those sleeping there every evening and checking for symptoms. He added that there had been no confirmed cases to date, although if such an incident should arise, the CNDS would prepare for isolation.

In addition to working with “highly motivated” staff, the CNDS is eager to collaborate with doctors on developing safer drug substitutions: while a substitute for heroin (methadone) already exists (and is provided to drug addicts in Luxembourg through a programme run by Jugend- an Drogen-Hëllef), there is still no adequate alternative to cocaine. The CNDS has proposed to pursue such objectives as part of the new national drug plan for 2020-24, although this remains subject to the approval of the Luxembourgish authorities.

Regarding support for these services, Raoul Schaaf confirmed that the main thing needed at present was professional help, namely from medical staff. Indeed, the CNDS recently received soup donations as well as a €2,000 donation from Fondation Thierry van Werveke, a non-profit association that helps young people who find themselves in difficulty or are socially disadvantaged. Mr Schaaf stressed that other non-profits which assist the homeless and marginalised have supported the CNDS during the coronavirus crisis. He added that the structure also receives a lot of support from its partners, including the Luxembourg State and the Health Ministry.

Further details about the CNDS and its various services for marginalised groups in Luxembourg are available on the website http://www.cnds.lu/.