Pubdate: Sun, 18 Feb 2001
Source: Sun-Herald (Australia)
Copyright: 2001 John Fairfax Holdings Ltd
Author: Sue Williams


Resolute and compassionate, Ingrid van Beek has her hands full overseeing 
the heroin injecting room trial in Sydney. Sue Williams reports.

When the battered body of 18-year-old Lesley Johnson was discovered in a 
Darlinghurst alley on Christmas Eve last year, Dr Ingrid van Beek was 

The beautiful young Aboriginal sex worker had become a regular visitor to 
the Kirketon Road Centre van Beek runs, and had just summoned up the 
courage to embark on a methadone program for injecting drug users. She was 
being counselled and treated, and was in the process of overhauling her life.

While others might have despaired at another wasted life, another casualty 
of the vicious sex and drugs industry on the cruel streets of Kings Cross, 
van Beek vowed to work harder to catch people like Lesley before they too 
became victims of those who prey on misfortune.

"For me, it turns up the volume that we need to engage these people sooner 
than we do," van Beek said. "It brings the need for our job into stark relief."

Those who know van Beek only by reputation as the dedicated director of the 
trailblazing medical, counselling and social welfare centre in the hub of 
Sydney's red-light district for injecting drug users, sex workers and young 
people - and sometimes the trifecta - are frequently surprised when they 
actually meet her.

A pretty 41-year-old blonde in a pastel-striped dress and slim row of 
pearls, she looks far too sweet to be dealing with the frequently 
horrifying realities of life among the most desperate of Sydney's underclass.

Yet she does, and daily she takes it that one step further. Today she's 
most frequently identified as the person about to oversee the controversial 
scheme for the country's first medically supervised injecting room trial - 
a project she believes in with all her heart.

Even those opposed to the experiment on its present site on Darlinghurst 
Road, confess to a grudging admiration.

"I do like her personally," said Stephen Carnell, a member of the executive 
committee of the Kings Cross Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, which is 
challenging the legality of the trial in court next month.

"But I have clashed with her at times because her dedication can blind her 
to establishing the proper balance between the health care of injecting 
drug users and the safety and amenity of the residents and community at large."

Former Salvation Army drug rehabilitation expert Major Brian Watters - now 
the chair of the Federal Government's advisory body, the Australian 
National Council on Drugs - also disagrees with her stance on injecting 
rooms, but still praises her.

"She's committed herself to helping one of the most difficult sectors of 
society: hard-core drug users and people struggling in the mire of Kings 
Cross," he said.

"I admire her tremendously. We've agreed to disagree on the heroin room but 
I don't know any medical person in Sydney who has a better knowledge and a 
more compassionate approach than she will bring to that task," he said.

"Resolute and determined," says the Uniting Church's Reverend Harry Herbert.

Yet still the question remains: what's a nice woman like van Beek doing 
working around the gutters of Kings Cross? She smiles gently, but the voice 
is firm and unwavering.

Her late father worked with the Dutch resistance against the Nazis in WWII, 
she explained. When he migrated to Australia in 1950, still with a passion 
for social justice and human rights, he had to step down a few rungs to 
work as a fitter and welder.

As a result, van Beek grew up among Sydney's western suburbs working class.

Throughout her medical degree at the University of NSW and her Masters in 
Business Administration at the Australian Graduate School of Management, 
she nursed the ambition to become Australia's first female surgeon.

Then, working part-time at the new Kirketon Road Centre, she realised that 
the country wasn't so much waiting for a pioneering woman surgeon, as 
struggling with the problem of drugs, and the care of those addicted - 
beyond patching them up after an overdose and sending them on their way.

"Underlying everything has always been that I have a passion, I suppose, to 
address issues of social inequity," she said, sitting in the cramped centre 
of which she has been director since 1989.

"I saw it as having a lot to do with the difference in opportunities people 
have. The people we are seeing tend to have the most problematic lives, 
with homelessness, often unemployment, limited education and skills and 
often second and third generation drug users. They've had very, very 
limited opportunities.

"I wanted to move into an area that was worthwhile and in which there was a 
need. Kirketon Road I thought was a marvellous model; very holistic in 
approach, looking at all aspects of health, including accommodation and 
income, all in a non-judgmental way."

The challenge is to make a difference, giving people with nothing 
something, anything, to live for - an alternative to their addiction to 
heroin - even if it is just a modicum of respect from others. The reward 
comes every time a person cleans up their act and moves out of the Cross to 
start life afresh. The sadness strikes as soon as the sighting of the next 
person in the wings, waiting to take their place.

The 18-month injecting room trial, run by the Uniting Church, is intended 
as a bold new step in providing a safe, supervised space for people to 
inject their drugs.

Proposed by the Drug Summit and funded by confiscated funds from illegal 
activities, it is hoped to provide a healthy, open alternative to the old 
shooting galleries in sex parlours that made a profit from charging users 
for their services and which, the Royal Commission found, ended up as 
hotbeds of police corruption.

Out of the 45 such centres that already exist in the world, it has been 
researched, and will be evaluated, the most rigorously.

"I have a persevering nature," she smiles. "I'm very tenacious, and I 
believe in plugging on. We have made great inroads, but we need to be here 
for the distance."

Just in case, you suspect, that she can prevent any other young person from 
suffering the same kind of fate as Lesley Johnson.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart