California authorizes local harm reduction services to begin operating
In 2011 Brandie Wilson lost a friend to heroin overdose. Then she lost another, and another. By 2013 she had lost six friends to overdoses and decided to do something about it.
Wilson graduated from Humboldt State University with her masters in sociology and created Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction, or HACHR. She said there was only one government-managed needle exchange run by Humboldt county. The demand exceeded their capacity.
“We have a large rural area with an extremely large drug use,” Wilson said. “There was more need than one program could handle.”
In October the state authorized HACHR to operate. They can now increase hours of operation and broaden intended outreach programs.
“It takes a lot of work to truly make a safe space for the people that come here,” Wilson said. “And they may never have known what a safe space is.”
Wilson started emailing everyone she knew involved with drug policy and was awarded a grant to start an organization. HACHR has been at its current location in Eureka for 18 months, and Wilson said they service between 90-150 people a week. She said there are groups against their services but the controversy elevates their work.
“At least it has the entire community talking about an issue that has been shoved in the shadows the past 40 years,” Wilson said.
According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, there are more than 115 people in the U.S. that die from opioid overdose every day. An estimated 2 million people suffer from substance abuse disorders related to opiates.
According to California Public Health Department data, from 2014-2016 Humboldt County had the second highest rate of overdose deaths in California’s 58 counties.
Avert, one of the leading global information and education organizations on HIV and AIDs, states harm reduction programs aim to prevent the spread of infections and viruses by providing easy access to sterile needles.
According to Avert, worldwide benefits of harm reduction services have been proven with countries like Switzerland, the UK, and Australia reducing the number of new HIV infections among intravenous drug users to zero.
“We have the highest rate of hepatitis C on the west coast,” Wilson said.
The program coordinator for HACHR is Jessica Smith. Smith earned her masters in sociology at HSU and started working in 2017. She oversees the building and volunteers, helps build programs and does training out in the community with safe injection.
“Brandie came to one of my classes and made me cry, so I wanted to try it out,” Smith said. “I’ve been here ever since.”
Smith said harm reduction was a term that was thrown around, but she didn’t know what it was until working at HACHR. Smith said she feels connected to the work she does because her mother had a history with substance abuse. Smith said the community shares with each other and sincerely look out after each other’s safety, and and the work at HACHR is rewarding every day.
“I get to step back and be very genuine with other people,” Smith said.
Harm reduction programs like HACHR rely on volunteer based work to help them stay operating. Angelica Flores-Cruz, a senior in sociology and CRGS at HSU, volunteers twice a week with HACHR. She has been with HACHR since last spring semester and said her eyes have opened to other fields to work in when she graduates.
“It has gotten me to think about marginalized groups, that’s what I study a lot in classes,” Flores-Cruz said.
Flores-Cruz said her favorite part at HACHR is working in the exchange room, where she distributes clean syringes, snorting and fentanyl testing kits, and cleaning supplies. At first, work was intimidating for Flores-Cruz because she never had experience with drugs, but she said it was easy to get comfortable.
Flores-Cruz said the people that use HACHR services are misjudged and forced to go through systemic barriers due to poverty. In the exchange room, Flores-Cruz said she enjoys listening to people who simply just need to vent and talk to feel better. Flores-Cruz said she will use what she learned at HACHR and spread the ideas when she moves back to Long Beach after graduating.
“It may seem small spending four hours rolling cotton but really it’s big,” Flores-Cruz said.