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Tuesday July 5th 2022

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Neighbors and Harm Reduction Groups Explore Overdose Prevention Site in Phillips

By GRACIE HALLBERG-CAIN, LEX HORAN, and KOR PACE

As summer settles in, more neighbors are out and about in the neighborhood – gardening, teaching kids to ride bikes, walking dogs. Along with the relief of the warm weather, it’s also a time when some of the issues that we have in the Phillips neighborhood become more visible. Syringes are uncovered when the snow melts. Sometimes, we see folks using drugs in public areas – situations that are often unsafe for the people using drugs, as well as those around them. This year, a group of neighbors has been exploring an approach that we haven’t tried before: an overdose prevention site (OPS). Overdose prevention sites are proven to save lives and reduce syringe litter, and have not been shown to increase drug use in the surrounding neighborhood. 

These issues in Phillips are part of a bigger picture. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, overdose deaths rose by 30% between 2019 and 2020 and continue to rise. In 2019, Black Minnesotans were twice as likely to die from a drug overdose as white Minnesotans and Native Minnesotans were seven times as likely to die of a drug overdose as white Minnesotans. We need solutions that center racial and health equity.

Overdose prevention sites are part of a broader approach called harm reduction, which is a set of proven strategies for addressing the negative impacts of drug use. OPS are spaces where people bring their pre-obtained drugs and consume them in the presence of trained staff who monitor for overdose. Two of these sites were opened in New York City in November 2021, and they have existed outside of the US for decades. There has never been an overdose death reported at any OPS, and people who use these sites are also shown to seek additional healthcare and drug treatment at a higher rate. 

From Kor and Gracie: As outreach workers with Southside Harm Reduction Services, we spend a lot of time in East Phillips. Our organization provides safe use supplies, referrals to care, HIV testing, and overdose response training. Many of our participants partner with us for syringe clean up, kit packing, and most recently, meeting about Overdose Prevention Sites.

We see a great need for more harm reduction services such as OPS here in East Phillips, and our participants agree. Participants share stories of saving life after life by reversing overdoses, redistributing safer use supplies, and sharing harm reduction knowledge. They are doing what they can to ensure the safety of their fellow community members, all without having the proper resources to do so. Our participants “just want a place to be,” a safe space, free from judgment and stigma. As outreach workers with SHRS, we want to uplift the voices of our participants, since they are often left out of these discussions. 

From Lex: Living in East Phillips, I’ve often felt overwhelmed by the drug use in our neighborhood. I’ve had the heart-pounding experience of running home to grab Narcan when someone is overdosing around the corner. Even more often, I’ve met a neighbor for the first time when they were using drugs on our porch or in our backyard. These interactions can be sweet, stressful, or anything in between. I know my backyard isn’t the safest place for folks to be using drugs–for anyone involved–but people don’t have anywhere else to go.

Recently, working with a group of other neighbors towards opening an OPS has helped me feel more purposeful and less powerless. We have started doorknocking to talk with neighbors about their concerns around drug use and the possibility of an OPS in our neighborhood. We haven’t spoken with every neighbor yet, but of those we’ve met, many are curious – even enthusiastic – about the idea. Many people are ready to try something different. The old “drug war” approach of criminalizing people and pushing them from corner to corner isn’t solving the problem.

Phillips neighbors step up to support each other all the time, but the burden shouldn’t just be on individuals. An OPS is one way to bring more resources into our neighborhood to address some of the biggest crises we face. We’re calling on the City, County and State to join us in taking this problem seriously and investing in real solutions like an overdose prevention site.

We’re just getting started. There are many steps ahead of us before an OPS becomes a reality, and we would love to have more neighbors involved in the process. If you want to join us, email EastPhillipsOPS@gmail.com, or call/text (612) 424-9676‬.

For more information about Southside Harm Reduction Services, visit our website at southsideharmreduction.org

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