Advocacy. Awareness. Access.

[BLOG POST] We Matter! Harm Reduction & the Move for Safe Consumption Services in Rural California

by Brandie Wilson, Executive Director/Founder, Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction

Rural counties in the United States have been hit hard by the recent opioid crisis and related health issues like overdose, hepatitis C, and HIV. Humboldt County, where the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction (HACHR) operates, is no different. We have the highest case reports of hepatitis C in California, and some of the highest rates of overdose in the state.  HACHR operates in Eureka, a city of 27,000 people. However, due to our extremely rural location, we not only serve Eurekans, but people from the surrounding area, including broader Humboldt County, Del Norte, Shasta, and Trinity Counties, and southern Oregon, due to the lack of harm reduction services in these rural communities.

This is the second year HACHR has provided syringe exchange and overdose prevention services. We also conduct community education, anti-stigma work, safer drug using classes, and hepatitis C education. We provide our services through outreach and at our drop-in center. At the drop-in center, we host a range of services in collaboration with other providers, such as HIV and hepatitis C testing, mental health services, and medical case management. We began our work just like many before us, because of the loss of friends and loved ones and the desire to prevent more deaths. We are a community-based organization that relies on consumer engagement and we have found great success organizing this way. Many of our consumers and volunteers take great pride and a sense of ownership participating in HACHR activities and we strive to strengthen our relationships daily.

The historical lack of information and support in Humboldt County regarding hepatitis C and overdose exacerbates our already alarming numbers. Our health crisis is embedded in larger systemic issues of incarcerating people who use drugs and “abstinence only” drug treatment models.  We work tirelessly to combat these archaic and degrading approaches and to educate the public and policy makers about evidence-based harm reduction practices.

Much of the harm reduction conversation in the United States focuses on metropolitan areas as they have the highest concentration of people. However, we are four hours deep into the redwoods and worlds away from any large city. Our remoteness requires us to innovate.  Many times, we are able to take programs that are implemented in metropolitan areas and modify them to fit our rural landscape and culture.

The introduction of Assembly Bill (AB) 186 by Assemblymember Eggman (D-Stockton), the safe consumption services (SCS) bill presently being heard in the state legislature, has presented us another great opportunity for rural innovation. We have deep gratitude to our state Assemblymember, Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), Chair of the Assembly Health Committee, for supporting AB 186 and ensuring that Humboldt County was included as one of the eight counties listed in the bill that could authorize SCS if the bill becomes law.  He  recently visited HACHR, toured our facility, and engaged in a great discussion with us about the role HACHR plays in efforts in Humboldt County to establish SCS.

The establishment of SCS in Humboldt County would help us address our overdose and hepatitis C crises. HACHR would be a great home for SCS as we have trust and involvement from the community of people who would use such services, as well as collaborations with various groups and organizations that could help provide a range of services, along with SCS, in order to truly meet people where they are.

Assemblymember Wood isn’t the only local politician who supports the creation of SCS.  Eureka City Council Member Kim Bergil was an early supporter of AB 186.  Having an active and supportive council member has been crucial to our efforts to engage the broader community on the topic of SCS and about our work more broadly. We have met with other civic leaders and are working to gain more political support for our work and for SCS. One of our more recent and fiercest supporters is the president of a local neighborhood watch chapter. She publicly supports the work of HACHR and engages with her peers to reduce the stigma associated with our efforts. We have also garnered the support of a Humboldt County Human Rights Commissioner in our efforts to ensure SCS are established in our community.

In this vast rural land of prohibition, advocating for SCS is just a piece of our work. We work tirelessly to bridge the information gap related to drug use, drug treatment, HIV and hepatitis C testing, overdose, and any local issues that fall under the “harm reduction umbrella” as we work toward our mission to “reduce harm to the Humboldt community through advocacy, education, and services.”