Harm Reduction

Recently I began volunteering for an organization that I have been eyeing for quite some time. My volunteering basically consists of hanging out in a steel van (that looks more like a HUGE bus) in an alley, getting to meet new people, provide clean and safer instruments for injection drug use, provide testings for infectious diseases and learning more about “the least of these”.  I’ve only volunteered a couple of times so far, but I’m really liking it.

Not only is it an excellent way for me to meet my own wants and needs of advocating and working for and with the poor, I am learning so much about those that have been cast out of society.  This is a completely hands on experience.

So of course there have been some inquiry on how and why I would want to be volunteering for such an organization that provides cleaner ways for substance users to use… And I completely welcome the questions (obviously it gives me the opportunity to talk about such needed work in the United States).  I don’t have it all figured out and I continue to have some troubles in wrapping my brain around the entire issue.  But, what I do know and am certain about is, this is a very needed service.  Providing clean needles (of all gauges), clean “cookers”, clean cotton pads, clean small cotton balls, vitamin C packets, access to Naloxone… are so needed in a society where we are living with or dying of completely  preventable diseases.

I guess the most common question (or statement, rather) that I have been receiving (more or less) is, “You know that you are just enabling druggies, don’t you?”  Well, I guess you can see it that way, and I can see why you see it that way, but I don’t agree with the sentiment.  Users are going to use and unless they personally decide to stop, they’re not going to be able to… So why not provide a cleaner and safer way for those who are using?  Self determination…we should all understand that (I was going to write, “allow for that”, but who are we to allow for anything).  After all, the last thing I want or need in my own life is for someone (who has their own issues) to tell me what to do.  I change when I want to. When I’m ready to.  So while substance users continue to use, this organization believes that they are worth the services, worth the education, worth the advocacy… because they are people too.

This approach is called Harm Reduction.  I first learned of this while I was interning for my master’s program.  The easiest way to explain is this, “meeting people where they’re at”.  For example, instead of not allowing the homeless population to receive housing services because they are substance users is a ridiculous notion.  Can we all agree that housing should be/is a human right? So to place stipulations on receiving a human right must be therefore…wrong… Right? This may not be a good comparison to providing cleaner and safer ways for injection drug use, but it’s the approach I’m trying to define.

So this is the approach, and I’m liking it.  I like the idea of “meeting people where they’re at”.  Perhaps this is because those that work with this approach are not imposing of their personal views and beliefs on those they’re working with…and that’s admirable.  As I continue to go out there on the weekends, I’m positive that I will learn more about humanity from this experience than from other more “socially acceptable” ones.  Feel free to ask me what I’m learning.


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