Melinda Ruger, executive director of Harm Reduction Services


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It’s easy to miss the Harm Reduction Services building when driving down Stockton Boulevard. The only remarkable thing about it is the 3-foot-tall HRS sign, written in a font reminiscent of 1990s Nickelodeon. The people, resources and artwork that fill the building, however, are about as extraordinary as the outside is unremarkable. It’s at these headquarters that 12 staff members stockpile items like vitamins, socks, tampons and mosquito repellent to share with unhoused folks who may need them to get through scorching summers and rainy winters. It’s also where they distribute and train people on the use of naloxone, the OD-reversing drug known by its brand name, Narcan. It’s where they test people for HIV and hepatitis C. It’s where they host mobile vet clinics that vaccinate dogs and give away leashes. And it’s where the executive director of HRS, Melinda Ruger, can be found most days, sporting tattoos, bespectacled in cat eye glasses and surrounded by artwork and cardboard signs that say things like “Hungrier than Jeffery Dahmer.”

How did you end up with these signs?

We have a large extended street family, and they gift us with all kinds of awesome things. It’s amazing; people that have nothing still want to give, and they are thinking of us. … I shouldn’t say they have nothing. Comparatively, it may seem like they have nothing.

And the tree?

This is our tree of remembrance. We invited participants that have a loved one or know someone that has died of an overdose, they can put their name on a leaf and place it on the tree on the wall. There were two leaves on this tree a couple years ago; just two. Now there are over a hundred.

Have you been here since HRS’ inception?

No, but oddly enough my relationship with HRS started in 1997. I was actually a participant of this program. HRS helped get me into an opiate detox program.

What was your transition from participant to staff member like?

It took me like 14 years of struggle. And was it drugs? No, it wasn’t all drugs. That’s not always the problem. Sometimes the problem is many different things, it’s mental health; it’s emotional; it’s domestic violence; it’s all of those things combined. I think that for me being able to make that journey, to see my value and be empowered to go get an education and get a degree and decide that I was bigger than this set of circumstances … it took a lot. And that’s why when people say, “You’re just helping people use drugs in harm reduction work,” [I say,] “No, we’re helping people stay alive.” Because their life is valuable and we don’t know what’s in store for this person tomorrow or a year from now.

Have you ever administered naloxone?

I have once. Yes. Pretty intense experience. It’s funny, when we started the naloxone program, some folks really thought that the change would be on the person that was Narcan’d. Like this cathartic and powerfully weird spiritual thing would happen, and it’s the other way around, it’s the person that saves the life that seems to be moved. Our naloxone program is a perfect example of human capacity and empowerment. Reminding folks of their ability to facilitate change and do good. If we can empower an individual, we’ve given them something that can never be taken away, which is that no matter what they’ve heard, whatever they believed about themselves, that you’re reinforcing this ability to do good. I mean, these people are heroes. They are mobilizing to save lives. No matter where we are, we can do good.

How should we be teaching kids about drugs?

I can tell you that one of the frameworks that we utilize is honest, empowered education. Working from the standpoint that young people are already making complex decisions, that people that have more information and more education make more informed choices. Now will kids experiment? Absolutely! It’s going to happen. Do they have the right to know what it is they’re experimenting with? Is that overall going to influence better decisions? Absolutely! They should know how drugs work. What are the risks unique to one drug over the next? What are some harm reduction strategies? What are some things that we can do to prevent detrimental things from happening not just for us but for our peers? How do we have a conversation about drugs with our peers without shaming them or making them feel like they’re inherently bad? How do we have a conversation without perpetuating the stigma that society likes to put on drug users? We also talk about things like linguistics and how language can reinforce stigma and shame. We talk about the physiology of drug use. We need evidence-based drug education. We need to normalize the conversation around drugs. There’s a really interesting tagline that’s being used right now, and it’s “Just say know” … I just thought that was an awesome reutilization of some dogmatic education.