Put in simple terms harm reduction is meeting people where they are at. In the homeless service’s space harm reduction also means being sober is not a requirement for services such as housing. My recent visit with Donny in Calgary is a near text book example. Donny was drinking and using on the streets for over 20 years, but when he got into housing and was given some dignity Donny got sober all on his own.
But Donny was also lucky. He never really got into very hard drugs, so it was easier for him to get sober. Often this is challenging for ‘normal’ people to understand: there is a point where drugs take over a persons life. They lose all reason and self-worth. Their whole existence revolves around getting another fix. Often this path takes a person down an unthinkable path of self-destruction. People end up doing things to survive that are horrible. HIV , Hepatitis C, and drug related deaths become a very serious public safety issue for all of us. One story I heard from a few different people is addicts using puddles of urine to “fix” their heroin. The thought makes me cringe, but I know what drugs did to me when I was heavily addicted. I needed drugs more than I needed air and I would do anything to get them.
My second city in Canada was Vancouver and I spent a day in Vancouver’s Downtown East side. I have always wanted to visit a “wet shelter” (a shelter that provides alcohol) to see for myself. I call myself a ‘liberal redneck’ so I do lean towards a harm reduction model. Mostly because I work with homeless people that are so addicted they will never find help in an abstinence based program (shelters that you have to be sober to get in to) so they are literally dying on the streets. But still I wanted to see these models myself. I wanted to talk to staff and interview people being helped. Well, I never planned on this, but on that first day in Vancouver I found myself standing in the middle of Insite, a supervised injection site. I’ll be candid, even as an ex-drug addict it freaked me out. Not so much because of watching people “shoot up”, but mostly because I didn’t expect it. I didn’t even know such places exist. I am actually glad it happened that way so I didn’t have any preconceived notions, which is actually why there is controversy around it.
The people who have problems with the harm reduction model just have never seen Hell like I have. It’s easy to judge from a distance, but once you’re on the streets of a ‘skid row’ type area watching addicts do unimaginable things to survive, your eyes open up and perceptions change. Please note I do understand why people have issues with harm reduction. And it’s not that people are bad or uneducated. They just have not had a personal connection to this issue like watching an addict shoot up in his neck. Meera Bai, a Christian nurse and harm reduction advocate said something really interesting to me. She said “we all practice harm reduction when we brush our teeth or take vitamins”.
So I am in Calgary and I get this tweet from Meera Bai saying something like “I am a Christian outreach nurse and I support harm reduction”. Obviously, I had to meet this amazing woman and get her story. Meera wrote a post for Christian Week (the only Christian publication that would publish her story) titled: Why I help addicts shoot up. Please read that powerful post and watch this powerful interview.
I put the word “grace” in the last post because Meera believes, and so do I, that a supervised injection site is God’s grace. Meera went on to say Jesus does not look at our sins, and no matter how dirty, nasty and ugly we get, Jesus saves our lives. I know helping someone inject drugs goes against conventional Christian beliefs – but does it really? I am for anything and everything that will save lives. The harm reduction model in every community it’s used in has documented proof of saving both lives and money while improving public health. WWJD – What would Jesus do? I believe Jesus would and does support harm reduction. I will tell you this, I saw more unconditional love at Insite than I have at most of the churches I visit.