Long stigmatised as a red light area for vice and drugs, Chow Kit, a business district located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, is now home to an innovative centre that provides assistance to drug addicts.
Founded in January 2010 by Raja Azizan Suhaimi Raja Abdul Latif, the Cure and Care Service Centre at Chow Kit (CCSC) offers methadone treatments, free meals and counselling sessions.
A native of Perak in northern Malaysia, Raja Azizan was once a heroin addict who peddled drugs from his durian stall near the Chow Kit wet market. He battled his addiction for 14 years before coming clean in 1998 after his father's death.
The centre's head of case management, 58-year-old Faizal Abdullah, is likewise a former addict and peddler. He does not mince words in describing the challenges of rehabilitation.
"There is no cure for drug addiction. It's like high blood pressure. You can be clean for 15 years and still suffer a relapse," he says.
Because many of its case workers have been on the painful journey of recovery themselves, they understand the difficulties faced by those they are seeking to help. According to Raja Azizan, the goal is to achieve a turnaround in six months with the help of counselling and introduction of coping skills to motivate recovering addicts to stay clean.
"We start by sending our case workers to the ports (where addicts get their fix) and tell them we can offer them a day shelter where they can have breakfast, lunch, wash their clothes and take a bath. The concept is to give them a safe and comfortable place. Being away from the street where they are vulnerable gives them the chance to think about the future," he told Khabar.
The care facility sees up to 120 drug users per day and records have shown nearly 35,000 walk-ins since its opening. Tucked between a row of shop houses in the sub roads of Lorong Haji Taib 3, the facility has referred 1,289 cases to rehab centres, put a total of 137 patients on methadone treatment this year and found employment for 61.
The CCSC's holistic approach contrasts with the older, "cold turkey" method utilised by government drug rehabilitation centres. Case worker Zahari Yusof, jailed in 1994 for selling drugs, says the latter approach failed him. Later, he found the CCSC.
"We do not tell them to stop, because we know without professional help, they cannot," case management head Faizal told Khabar. "Even if they relapse, we don't call them failures. We tell them there is hope and they can always try again. Even when we meet our clients for the first time, we do not ask them if they are high. Instead we say 'How are you?' followed by 'How can we help you?'"
Case worker Mohamad Arei Kamarudin, also a former addict, says the biggest hurdle is to help addicts see reason despite their altered states of mind. The goal is to bring them to ask themselves whether they are happy with the way they are.
On the CCSC programme, Samuel Fong, 60, a former heroin addict, said, "Seeing is believing".
"Here was where you'd see the living skeletons of addicts either in their drug-induced stupor or dying of some disease," he said, pointing to a back alley once known as the "Lane of Corpses". The ravages of drug addiction used to be exposed in broad daylight.
"It's empty now," says Fong standing in the setting rays of the 5pm sun. While the neighbourhood has not been irrevocably transformed – locals say the addicts return after dark – the difference CCSC has made is tangible.
"It is not an ideal world we live in but at least something is being done," Raja Azizan said.