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Friday December 9th 2022

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East Phillips Needs Harm Reduction Solutions for the Drug Problem

By Stephen Gregg

In the eight years I’ve owned my home near 26th St and Bloomington Ave, I have been stuck by a discarded syringe, seen multiple overdoses, two deaths, and countless ambulances and police vehicles. I have watched in horror as entwined problems increase: the number of people experiencing homelessness, open air drug use, and crime. When approaching neighborhood issues, I try to practice empathy. From the beginning I’ve wanted to be involved in the work to find solutions, attending countless neighborhood meetings of all sorts. The problems here are deep-rooted  and complex. I’m not a social worker–actually I’m an agricultural plant scientist. So I also comb research for solutions to problems. And this search has pointed me strongly towards harm reduction practices and services, practices endorsed by the CDC. Harm reduction has the potential to reduce short term harms while creating space for long lasting change. The city is already funding harm reduction services, such as the work of Southside Harm Reduction, who do street outreach and provide needle exchange.

According to the National Harm Reduction Coalition website, harm reduction principles are a set of practical strategies to reduce the consequences of drug use, based on a belief in rights for people who use drugs. Some of these include: acknowledging the realities of intersectional causes of drug use; ensuring that people who use drugs have a voice in the creation of solutions; NOT minimizing or ignoring the real harms and dangers caused by illicit drug use; and creating non-coercive and non-judgmental services. At this point, I can hear countless neighbors in meetings saying, “We don’t want to enable drug users.” And without much support from the city, the primary tactic that comes up is for neighbors to move people experiencing homelessness off a given block, inevitably resulting in them moving to another nearby. This is all neighbors feel they can do, but it makes the problem worse by further scattering used needles, causing more stress and harm to unhoused folks, and disconnecting them from case workers and services (see CDC guidelines during Covid). 

The fundamental short-term issue is that people experiencing homelessness have no place to go. There is little affordable housing and extremely limited and/or high-barrier shelter beds. Many city and county empty lots and neglected spaces have been fenced off, leading people to move onto private land—yards, sidewalks, and parking lots of housed neighbors, which causes clashes between these groups. We need a community center where people can go during the day, where they won’t be harassed or arrested, and we need to combine this with strong Housing First policies. A community center can provide wrap around services for participants, a proven strategy for increasing use of services such as addiction counseling and housing programs. 

One site that does this is Insite in Vancouver, British Columbia. This site opened in 2003 as the first overdose prevention site (OPS) in North America, an epicenter for drug addiction in Canada. Since opening, Insite has seen almost 4 million visits by people to inject drugs, with 6,400 overdoses. To date, astoundingly, 0 deaths have occurred. And on top of that, according to a 2014 review paper summarizing 75 studies on OPS sites, nearly 60% of people who use Insite enter addiction treatment. Studies also show that these sites do not increase drug use or crime in the areas where they operate, including drug sales. They do reduce the number of people injecting in public and syringe litter by half or more. Over 120 of these sites exist around the world, many of them for decades.

You may know that these kinds of sites are technically illegal on the federal level in the U.S. But things are changing fast. So much so that, with strong support on the state level, New York City opened two such sites in Manhattan in November of this year. In the first day, two overdoses were reversed. With a growing sense of urgency, there are signs that the federal government is willing to let these pilot projects happen, although this is still a gray area. Despite this, overdose prevention sites (OPS) are endorsed by the American Medical Association and many physician groups, such as those in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and California to name a few. 

We are in an opioid epidemic and a housing crisis and we need overdose prevention sites in Minneapolis and across the country. Currently, a group of East Phillips Improvement Coalition (EPIC) members along with harm reduction organizations are working to make this happen. Send an email to EastPhillipsOPS@gmail.com if you want links to the research or to get involved.  

Want to learn more or get involved?Email EastPhillipsOPS@gmail.com

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