A conversation with the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction

For the next installment of our bi-monthly harm reduction grantee highlights, we spoke to the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction. The organization, based in California, “is committed to building stronger, healthier communities by co-creating spaces that foster dignity, equity and choice.”

The organization was founded by Brandie Wilson when she saw a need in the community “not only for supplies, but for a community that people who use drugs could be part of.”

AIDS United’s harm reduction grants and initiatives support evidence-based and community-driven approaches to reduce the health, psychosocial and socioeconomic disparities experienced by people who use drugs. Organizations like the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction do this important work every day.

Check out our conversation.

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

The most important thing people should know about our work and our program is that we are committed to the people we serve. Sometimes that commitment doesn’t translate into the way that other community groups do their work, but we see our participants as experts of their own needs and we try the best we can to follow their guidance. Another thing we think is crucial is that we develop close relationships with our participants, respecting their knowledge and bodily autonomy. While that approach is rewarding, this past year has proven to be really difficult due to the amount of copious loss we’ve seen — and continue to see — in our community to overdoses and other health-related deaths. It makes the work both intimate and incredibly difficult.  

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

We serve primarily people who use drugs who are also experiencing homelessness. Most of our participants are IV drug users, but we’ve put a lot of effort into increasing distribution of smoking supplies in recent years. This helps us stay in contact with not only people who smoke opioids but also people who use stimulants. We tailor our programming to our participants’ needs through annual surveys, daily feedback and adjustment to the way we work.  

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?   

One really crucial service we’ve been providing for over a year now is PCR COVID testing. Our participants are able to get tested for COVID at our outreach van. Since we stay in close contact with folks, even people without phones just have to come back to the van to check out their status. This has been helpful because it means less travel for our participants and it also increased the amount of people who would have otherwise not been tested. This has helped us keep the spread of COVID-19 to a minimum. 

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

The pandemic has forced the whole world into innovation. HACHR is no different. Back in the beginning of the pandemic, we were facing shutdown under the push from local officials saying we “weren’t an essential business.” Luckily we were able to continue operating, but it came with some costs. The stress of trying to stay vigilant, staff shortages due to COVID, and just overall stress on existing systems made our work that much more difficult.  

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

Our participants make our work possible. Harm reduction would not exist without people who use drugs because that’s who harm reduction serves and was created by. We believe people who use drugs know better than anyone how harm reduction organizations should operate in order to best serve as many people as possible. The fluidity of the movement is always tailored to new best practices. 

Our staff also keeps our work going by not only showing up but for doing the work that requires love and compassion. All of our staff members are doing this work because they love their community and want to see marginalized people maintain their health, safety and general well-being. We are a collective of loving, caring individuals. 

What enrages you when doing this work?  

What enrages us while doing this work is that we keep finding ourselves fighting the same arguments as day one. Even though many people are now recognizing harm reduction as an essential part of health care, there are still local political forces that are distracted by mundane and misguided issues. We are currently operating under an ordinance in Eureka which is not evidence-based because of these misdirected arguments. It’s just frustrating because it takes from our cups — and our friends and family members are dying or living in dehumanizing conditions because people can’t see clearly past their own righteousness.  

What motivates you?   

Our participants, our staff, all people with lived experience with drug use and criminalization that have made it work for years. The resilience of our peers who show up to work even though they are also facing many of the same barriers and challenges as some of our participants. The space all of us at HACHR have created allows us to be honest and open with each other, make room for vulnerability, and hold each other accountable in loving ways. That is the stuff that keeps us all going. We operate internally as a community that is able to work together in a not-so-perfect world, but we’re all working toward a common goal — to keep people alive and safe while using drugs.  

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: https://aidsunited.org/our-initiatives/harm-reduction/.

To learn more about the work of HACHR, visit their website, hachr707.org, or find them on Facebook and Instagram.