Networks of drug users and harm reductionists have been repeatedly devastated as overdose deaths surge amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that community is grieving the death, on September 7, of Jesse Harvey, a harm reduction leader in Maine.
Jesse founded Journey House Recovery in December 2016 and the Church of Safe Injection (CoSI), a grassroots distributor of harm reduction supplies, in 2018. He advocated for expanding syringe service programs and introducing safe consumption sites. He wrote a short article for Filter last year, condemning Maine legislators’ rejection of SCS.
Members of the harm reduction movement are mourning his passing and recognizing his important contributions. In a statement posted to Facebook announcing his death, Journey House honored “his vision and incredible enthusiasm” that brought the organization into existence in 2016. “His legacy will live on at our recovery residences and in the greater recovery community,” they wrote.
Jesse “worked so hard and was so genuine in every minute of that work,” wrote author and journalist Travis Lupick. “He only wanted to help people. He was idealistic, in the best way possible.”
It has been reported that police believe Jesse’s death to have been from an overdose; that has yet to be confirmed, however.
“In his work, Jesse was serious, dedicated and passionate. In his life, he was this big crazy, nutty goofball that just always loved making jokes and making people laugh,” Kari Morissette, executive director of the Church of Safe Injection, told the Portland Press-Herald. “It’s a huge loss for the harm reduction community as a whole. Everybody knew of Jesse. He changed a lot of people’s perceptions on a lot of things and molded the way the people approach harm reduction in this area.”
As a fellow 20-something drug user dedicated to popularizing harm reduction and building community power, I considered Jesse a role model. I first met him in 2019 while I was passing through Portland, Maine. We knew of each other through the online grapevine, and so—as so many millennials do—I hit him up on a whim to hang out while a friend and I were in town.
He eagerly accepted and invited us to join him on a ride. He had to drop off some safer injection gear to a Church member. We met at his house, the entrance crowded with boxes of syringes and naloxone—a sign of good company. Loading up his beloved red Honda, we drove around handing out supplies, chatting with folks. We stopped by one of the Journey House locations, where he introduced us to the residents and we played with a dog roaming the house. The hospitality and openness expressed by Jesse felt exceptional.
The author (left), her friend (center), and Jesse doing harm reduction supply distribution in April 2019.
I’m not going to lie: I had been second-guessing our impromptu meet-up just before we arrived. I was wary if how Jesse would regard myself and my friend: a trans woman and a gender-nonconforming dyke. It’s no secret that certain sects of harm reduction can feel like a bit of a boys’ club, whether that means heterosexual male drug users are being prioritized or that men are listened to over the rest of us. Nonprofit harm reduction’s chronic neglect or exploitation of sex workers feels exemplary of this atmosphere of male chauvinism.
But Jesse was different. It wasn’t simply that he asked for our pronouns—which was great! Rather, he was genuinely interested in the lives and experiences of queer and trans people who use drugs, and how he could better show up for us. Half a year later, after I had co-founded the now-defunct trans harm reduction collective Do It Safe, Heaux! (DISH)—which was partially inspired by his Church—we would DM on Instagram about how his work could better reach queer and trans people who use drugs. He’d offer me his own advice for my organizing work, like the best wholesalers for heat-resistant meth pipes. I can’t say I know any other cisgender, heterosexual harm reductionist who was so ready to make time to build a collaborative relationship with a trans woman.
The last nine months of his life had been rough. Jesse allegedly faced rights violations while held at a a notorious jail-based civil commitment program in Massachusetts, as I reported in January. It was only a few weeks since being released in February that Jesse, like the rest of us, had to face the COVID-19 crisis.
He began using again in March soon after a bad interaction with a cop while distributing harm reduction supplies amid the lockdown. The police officer told Jesse, as well as Kari Morisette, who recently recounted this to the Bangor Daily News, that their distribution efforts were not a “public health necessity.”
That’s despite the reports of increasing overdose deaths in the state since the pandemic exploded. Even before the effects of COVID-19 were felt by Maine drug users in spring 2020, many among them were already fatally overdosing in higher numbers of statistical significance during this year’s first quarter, compared to the final three months of 2019.
Jesse had told me that the erasure of his work, as one of the few local harm reduction providers to keep going in the early days of COVID-19, was not limited to the cop. “There is currently a City of Portland Public Health Department narrative out that they are the only ones providing harm reduction services, when in fact they are providing almost none,” Jesse wrote to me in a March 27 email. “They shut down for COVID19 and are only now suddenly reopening in a very fake and tokenizing way. And they pretty much with one tweet tried to erase the work that our church was doing the whole time they were closed.”
On a single Sunday in late March, his rag-tag group served almost 100 people. He told me he and his Church members distributed 1,220 syringes, 47 naloxone kits, 40 crack pipes, 106 meth pipes and over 50 fentanyl test strips. “If we hadn’t been there, the 97 people we served would have still used drugs, just with contaminated syringes instead and/or without a fentanyl test strip or lifesaving naloxone,” he wrote.
Jesse seemed to be increasingly disillusioned and frustrated by the inadequate institutional attempts to support people who use drugs. In mid-July, he forwarded me his provocative response to an email he received from a Maine Department of Corrections case manager, inquiring about an incarcerated client looking to join Journey House when released that month. Jesse was no longer working for Journey House, he informed the worker, going on to express a sense of pessimism about what established systems could do for people who use drugs.
“If your client ever relapses, it’s probably best that he DOES NOT GO to a hospital to seek treatment… or the state might fuck him too,” Jesse responded, seemingly referring to his civil commitment experience earlier that year. “And God forbid he’s black, then they’d just shoot him dead.”
There was something surreal about the email thread: a carceral bureaucrat just looking to shuffle a body out of a cage and into a home, only to be met by Jesse expounding the violence of the war on drug users in graphic metaphors. He wanted—and needed—the world to be different, and he did so much to make that happen. Jesse embodied the harm reduction tenet described by writer Tracy Helton in a tweet mourning Harvey’s death: “[W]e do the things that need to be done- whether they are comfortable, feasible, legal, or even funded.”
Yet his world remained recalcitrant.
“All this pain, psychosis, misery, suicide attempts, relapse, OD, etc… and for what? All to fatten up the sacrosanct prison industrial complex that is so fiendishly thirsty for the dripping blood and the severed and dismembered limbs of society’s ‘lower classes’ and anybody who isn’t white,” wrote Jesse in the July 16 email. “It’s classicide and white supremacist genocide unfolding right before us daily. And we just watch it and go about our days, and the bureaucrats making $80k/yr just schedule a meeting to schedule another meeting.”
It shouldn’t take the loss of life to compel the state and society to work in support of drug users’ health, power and autonomy. Drug users have been envisioning the paths forward for years: from safe consumption spaces to a safe supply, from housing for all to drug legalization. Even with mass death, only crumbs have been delivered to activists by politicians and bureaucrats, like the expansion of take-home methadone, and some wins are even being rolled back, as seen with the recent closure of a busy safe consumption site in Canada.
I wasn’t close with Jesse, but from our working relationship, I know he will not rest in peace until all drug users are safe, healthy and have the resources to self-determine their lives.
CoSI is raising funds for Jesse Harvey’s family and his September 19 candlelight vigil. Donations can be made to their Venmo: @churchofsafeinjection.