A conversation on harm reduction with the Aliveness Project

For more than 30 years, the Aliveness Project has facilitated connection to community and resources for people living with HIV in Minnesota. Originally starting as just a potluck where people living with HIV could share a meal and a story, the Aliveness Project has become “the heart of the local HIV community here in Minneapolis.”

They offer a wide arrange of free services to community including “case management, hot meal service, food shelf, housing, mental, MNT, & so much more.” In response to the local HIV outbreak among people who inject drugs, the organization opened a mobile syringe services program to expand and better meet the needs of people living with HIV in Minnesota.

Here’s some highlights from our conversation with the Aliveness Project’s Brad Bryan.

What got you involved in harm reduction? How was your organization founded?

The Aliveness project was founded in 1985. Originally, it started as a simple potluck where people living with HIV could share a meal in community. Over the years, it grew into our wonderful community that it is today, offering services such as case management, hot meal service, food shelf, MNT and more.

Harm reduction has always been hand in hand with HIV work even before we had the words to describe it. So for us, we believe that harm reduction has always been a part of our organization. However, we really started focusing on harm reduction work more seriously when we saw an HIV outbreak in 2020 amongst folk who use injection drugs. Our mobile unit and syringe program is a direct response to this.

What is the most important thing that people should know about your work?

“Consider your goal to be to give people the tools they need to stay as safe as possible” was the advice engrained into me by a mentor about harm reduction. This has really held true over the time as it really focuses on providing resources, expanding access and giving autonomy for folk to choose what is best for them.

What specific populations do you work with at your SSP? How do you tailor your programming to these populations and their needs?

I would say one of the biggest populations we serve are folks who are unsheltered and Indigenous. Our strategy is to continuing to move around as they move around to directly respond to encampments and evictions, offering consistent services whenever possible.  We also work with Indigenous community partners to build awareness around harm reduction, historical trauma and trafficking.

We have seen the ways in which SSPs and community-based harm reduction programs have adapted services in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Could you speak to some of the innovative programming you’ve done?

We collaborate with our in-house PrEP clinic and the county to put on monthly COVID-19 vaccination events, in addition to MPX. We print and distribute these resource flyers through our SSP by including this information in each of our harm reduction kits we distribute. We have also curated relationships with local news outlets to highlight our work within the community with our mobile SSP and vaccine clinics. Our next step is working toward creating a zine by and for our SSP participants around Harm reduction, COVID-19 and more.

What has worked for you all during the age of COVID-19? What hasn’t worked?

We started our SSP in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which presented unique challenges. When we started our SSP we focused on how we would be interacting with our clients and what forms our outreach best fit our work. We have had substantially more impact with our mobile unit and “meeting people where they are at” vs. having a singular brick n mortar site where people come to us. I believe that mobile medicine and bringing services to people will be a pivotal step we need to take in harm reduction.

Who makes your work possible? In what ways does this happen?

The biggest aspect that I want to highlight that makes our work possible is our staff. I am incredibly proud to have such a beautifully diverse staff with different backgrounds, genders, races, ages, HIV and migrant statuses. Because our team is so unique and has multiple skillsets and job roles, we collectively are able to reach a larger population of folk because we are representative of them offering a multiple disciplinary approach to harm reduction, treatment and prevention.

What enrages you when doing this work?

That people at large do not have access to injection alternatives such as safer smoking supplies due to stigma. This removes people’s autonomy and ability to choose how they ingest their drugs in safer ways, which is directly contradicting to harm reduction.

What motivates you?

Being able to cultivate a team that grows to become experts in their own right. Also seeing the impact of our work happen in day-to-day life and knowing that we are offering much more than just a syringe exchange service, but also a connection to community.

Follow along with the AIDS United blog as we feature the work of more of our harm reduction grantee partners in community every day. For more information about AIDS United’s harm reduction work, visit our website: aidsunited.org/our-initiatives/harm-reduction/. To learn more about the work of the Aliveness Project, visit aliveness.org/