Less harm, more acceptance
Grassroots harm reduction coalition aiming to eliminate barriers for drug addicts
For the past two years, Siana Sonoquie has volunteered her time by conducting street outreach, speaking with some of the Chico community’s most disenfranchised citizens—many of them addicted to drugs.
Lately, she’s been an advocate for a homeless man, supporting him by providing transportation to appointments and connecting him to food and hygiene services. He has tried to get into treatment for his addiction to methamphetamine and alcohol, but has been unsuccessful—the program covered by Butte County Behavioral Health requires him to be sober for several weeks before entering.
“For the past three years, that has been a cycle for him, where he goes about a week and a half [sober], falls back [into using] and then he never gets the treatment that he needs,” she said. “And this is a person that is in and out of jail constantly.”
Sonoquie shared this homeless man’s story during a presentation on Monday (Oct. 29) for the Butte County Bar Association, an advocacy group that promotes professional education and empathy and understanding between the court system and community. She was there there to talk about a grassroots group recently formed to work toward eliminating barriers to treatment such as this.
Sonoquie is one of about 25 founding members of the Northern Valley Harm Reduction Coalition. They come from a variety of backgrounds—public health, homeless services, LGBTQ advocacy, health care, environmentalism—and joined forces after recognizing that “in some capacity, our work shows the need for harm reduction.”
Harm reduction “honors this human process and human relationship to drugs and alcohol,” Sonoquie said. Rather than requiring sobriety for programs or support, it aims to reduce harm by educating substance users and providing programs like syringe exchanges.
The coalition formed in August, shortly after homeless service provider Stairways Programming closed the only harm reduction center in town. (See “Stepping down,” Newslines, Oct. 4.)
The group hit the ground running: Its organizers quickly assembled a couple dozen members and secured a $45,000 state grant to provide free overdose prevention drug Naloxone to heroin and painkiller users.
In addition, they’ve conducted street outreach, collected used syringes, provided harm reduction training and established a hotline for syringe clean-up requests.
The entirely volunteer-run effort aims to serve Butte and its surrounding counties with a client-centered approach—empowering former and current substance users, homeless or otherwise, to lead support groups and help create programs.
During the presentation, co-founder Cassie Miracle said that is what “can bring about the most change.” Miracle recently resigned from Butte County Public Health after four years as an education specialist, and has now devoted her time to consulting and the coalition.
“I felt like … I could serve the community better outside of local government,” Miracle told the CN&R.
The coalition does not have a physical location just yet, but its members hope to partner with a local organization or church to host harm reduction meetings, an alternative to the 12-step program.
It may soon receive its second wave of financial support—enough to kick-start a pilot program that would get those meetings started and establish a relationship with the court system. Law practitioners of the Butte County Bar Association expressed interest in hearing a formal proposal during Monday’s meeting.
The bar association also partnered with Stairways for the opening of its harm reduction center last summer, offering pro bono legal services to the homeless population. (See “New center breeds hope,” Newslines, July 13, 2017.)
Ron Reed, a public defender and president of the association, was drawn to the approach because the juvenile and adult probationers and parolees he serves weren’t seeing results with court orders directing them toward traditional 12-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous.
“When you’re 18 years old and somebody says, ‘You have a disease, you can never drink a beer or do anything,’ they’re not going to buy that,” he said. “Wait until they’re 50 and they’re in the gutter.”
Some people just need to figure out ways to reduce the harm they are causing, Reed continued, like making sure they don’t drive while drunk or that they process anger issues, so they don’t act aggressively.
A common misconception is that participants in these kinds of programs are encouraged to use drugs, Sonoquie said. But harm reduction does not ignore or minimize the dangers of using.
Some harm reduction programs have proven their efficacy: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people who inject drugs and participate in a syringe services program (harm reduction programs that provide access to sterile needles and syringes and facilitate safe disposal) are five times more likely to seek treatment for substance use disorder than those who don’t.
A nonjudgmental, noncoercive approach is the foundation of the work the coalition wants to conduct, creating spaces where drug users who want to make positive changes feel welcome and safe and maintain their dignity.
The coalition has already connected with the Greater Chico Homeless Task Force and Stonewall Alliance Center. It has received support from the California Public Health Department and national Harm Reduction Coalition.
Miracle told the CN&R she grew up in Butte County, and started her career as a case manager for people living with HIV. Her clients became her friends, and their stories resonated with her. There weren’t always resources to accommodate their needs.
“Sometimes it takes a group of community members to get something going like this, and get the community on board …” she said. “I feel very strongly like, ‘These are my people. I need to help take care of them.’”