San Francisco’s Frontline Harm Reductionists Persist Despite Pandemic

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    Grassroots harm reduction organizations in San Francisco are adapting their services to bypass limitations presented by the coronavirus pandemic while still meeting the needs of drug users, who are at high risk of COVID-19, as two videos produced by the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) depict.

    “We are seriously busier than ever and seeing record numbers,” wrote the Homeless Youth Alliance, a harm reduction organization working in the Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood long known for being a space occupied by unhoused youth, in a March 28 Facebook post. “Our staff and volunteers are doing our absolute best under extremely unideal working conditions to get people the supplies, care and support they need.”

    HYA is maintaining full operation during social distancing, providing street outreach, hot meals, and space to access essential resources like electrical outlets to charge phones and ankle bracelets. HRC’s above video illustrates the organization’s day-to-day operations.

    The San Francisco Drug Users’ Union—a harm reduction group serving the Tenderloin, a neighborhood smeared by media for its drug-using, unhoused residents—has similarly risen to the challenge of serving unhoused people who use drugs during yet another public health crisis. “We were best known for our drop-in centers,” said Miss Ian, the union’s director, in the April 20 video (below) produced by HRC. “That’s the biggest change: We just do front-door service now.” But in light of this, “[o]ur day with the COVID-19 has been very productive,” said Michael Richardson, a union worker, citing in the video the organization’s new systematized supply distribution routine.

    The San Francisco Drug Users’ Union is also taking on new roles to meet the demands of people surviving a pandemic. Staff are serving as points of first contact for people who use drugs and might have COVID-19. For union participants expressing symptoms, they can be directly connected with a local clinic that will provide an “over-the-phone” diagnosis, and offer transportation to the clinic for further testing.


    The union’s continuing provision of essential services doesn’t mean it’s easy for frontline workers or those they serve. “I think people’s tensions are way up because so many of our routines have changed pretty drastically,” said Miss Ian. “Which I think just comes with something that’s scary, that is confusing, and that doesn’t seem to have an end date.”

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