In a Florida “Recovery” Hub, a Syringe Program Finds Its Place

    Organizers at Rebel Recovery Florida say their slogan is simple: “We love you.”

    “We want people to know we understand complex personhood,” cofounder Justin Kunzelman told Filter. “We have no defined or otherwise given right to tell people how they should live their lives. We show up for people as they are.”

    As of April 1, Rebel Recovery Florida runs only the second SSP in South Florida, following the successful launch of a pilot in Miami-Dade County in December 2016. But the harm reduction nonprofit has been showing up for people in Palm Beach County for over five years, starting with Kunzelman informally providing friends with syringes when they needed them. Following 2019’s legalization of SSP in Florida, Palm Beach County became the second in the state to approve such a program. 

    The Rebel Recovery philosophy is that anyone who wants to seek support for drug use, not just those who want to stop their use, is in recovery. “We’re merging these worlds that everyone sees as opposite—harm reduction and recovery,” Kunzelman said. “To us, they’re the same thing.”

    “We provide the knowledge they need to take charge of their own health. We’re not ‘abstinence-first’ or ‘drug-free.’”

    People who use drugs in Palm Beach County are at high risk. Between 1999 and 2016, the county lost 3,552 residents to opioid-involved overdose. In 2018 alone, 330 people died of overdose, and the numbers continue to rise. Statewide, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Florida had a nearly 40 percent increase in overdose in 2020, with 7,422 reported deaths—up from 5,397 in 2019.

    As the overdose crisis takes more and more lives across the country, and HIV outbreaks spread as community SSP are under fire, programs like Rebel Recovery could mean the difference between life and death for locals who use drugs. Recent studies also found that hospitals across Florida could save millions of dollars if SSP were more prevalent. 

    Kunzelman and his team aim to support 200 participants this year. Per state law, they can only provide syringes on a a 1:1 exchange basis, meaning that participants have to bring in used syringes in order to receive new ones. Participants can register through an anonymous system that allows them to legally carry unused syringes. The agency also offers including HIV screenings, community-based support groups, recovery services and a recovery community center, health care services, weekly food distribution, outreach, online support groups and workshops.

    For Kunzelman, these tools empower people. “We provide the knowledge they need to take charge of their own health. We’re not ‘abstinence-first’ … or ‘drug-free.’”

    The abstinence model is pervasive in Palm Beach County. The county houses some of the largest rehab facilities in the country, most of which are “abstinence-first or -only” and require health insurance. These are also some of the largest employers in the county, and Kunzelman said financial incentive can often be prioritized over public health. 

    “Everything we built was built because no one else could provide it.”

    For people with Medicare, Medicaid or no insurance, or for those seeking harm reduction, finding services is challenging. Kunzelman and Nancy McConnell founded Rebel Recovery because of their own lived experience of struggling to navigate the system. 

    “Everything we built was built because no one else could provide it. It wasn’t built out of desire to do all the services; it was because there was no one else,” Kunzelman said. “If I called any number or helpline, you wouldn’t get anyone who lived here or was even objective about what your needs might be or what might be appropriate for your treatment.”

    “They’d shuffle you place to place based on their agreements, and everything had to be abstinence-based.”

    Lived experience and connection to the community are key for how Rebel Recovery operates. The majority of the agency’s work is through peer services, providing education, advocacy and support for those who need it.

    “It’s 100 percent up to the individual to engage or disengage at their comfort,” Kunzelman said. “We’re not showing up to be saviors. We’re walking with someone, guiding them through the things they are saying they need.”


    Photograph of Palm Beach via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Umme is a journalist and editor who has written about human rights, politics, education and climate, with an interest in the impact of social and public policies on disenfranchised communities. She was formerly Filter‘s editorial fellow. She also works as an organizer and advocate, working to build a future with education, housing and health care for all. Umme lives in New Mexico.

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