July 21, 2016
Last week, many people across the world observed Drug Users Remembrance Day--a day to remember those that have lost their lives due to substance use challenges and the failed war on drugs. This issue is very close to us at the shelter. Not only do many of our guests live with persistent substance use challenges (60%), but the majority of our staff have lived experience with this as well. Due to the criminalizing nature, stigma and shame based rhetoric associated with the culture of the war on drugs, people continue to die at alarming rates every single day in our country. A famous Canadian doctor and addictions specialist, Gabor Mate, often talks about the ways in which we talk about drug use in North America and how as a society we perpetuate dangerous drug use and make the problem worse. --------------------------------------->
We come from a perspective that people make decisions within the context of their environment. At the IW EOS we always aim to “zoom out” to find the context for someone’s behavior rather than blaming the individual for their behavior. Every one of our guests has experienced trauma/is currently experiencing systemic trauma that has a dramatic effect on their daily lives. It is our job (and further, we believe, the job of our community) to recognize what trauma does to people and support them appropriately with that knowledge. What we know, is that trauma often leads to substance use and dependency.
"Let us not be vague: people who use drugs are being killed. People have continued to die as a result of the drugs they use being of unknown purity and content due to their black market production – which demonstrably and directly results from prohibition. Opposition to harm reduction interventions has continued to drive catastrophically high incidence and prevalence of blood-borne infections like HIV and hepatitis C. And the cost of treatment for hepatitis C – the most important infection affecting people who inject drugs – has resulted in people continuing to die utterly needlessly from an entirely curable disease. Compounding this, the lack of access to antiretroviral drugs for people living with HIV has similarly resulted in ongoing and preventable morbidity and mortality."
Issues are never as simple (right/wrong, good/bad) as society wants us to believe. Part of our mission is to fight against the many iterations of stigma that our guests are up against everyday. They have survived insurmountable odds and I am honored that they choose to allow us into their lives. By providing an open and trusting environment for people that use drugs we have been able to form relationships with our guests that allow us to have real conversations with them about their use and encourage ways for them to stay safer, be proud of who they are and feel worthy of receiving love.
Practically, we have policies that support the drug users at our shelter including an opiate overdose and administration policy. Based on the Good Samaritan Law, this policy allows for us to administer Naloxone, an opiate overdose reversal drug, for people that are in the midst of a deadly overdose. We have successfully reversed two overdoses that would have otherwise resulted in death because our support staff are trained in this life saving intervention. One of the overdoses was a 19 year old that had just returned from a drug treatment program with no skills or education around the risk of overdose, (significantly higher when coming out of an institution such as inpatient treatment or jail) and how to effectively stay alive.
We also publicly support interventions that have been proven to save lives and decrease the negative effects of public drug use such as Safe Consumption Facilities. According to the Washington chapter of VOCAL, "Supervised consumption facilities are controlled health care settings where people can more safely use pre-obtained drugs in a hygienic environment with access to sterile injecting equipment and under the supervision of trained care staff. Safe consumption spaces provide an array of support including health care, counseling, and referrals to health and social services, including drug treatment." Recently, VOCAL brought an exhibit to Olympia to demonstrate what a room like this can look like. A number of our shelter staff swung by to check it out and we were very impressed by the opportunity something like this could provide for the overall safety and well being of our entire community.