The Texas Harm Reduction Alliance (THRA) is fighting on after its landlord threatened it with eviction over the nature of its work. The group provides resources and care to people who use drugs, but some local residents objected. Elected officials stepped in to mediate the dispute, but the health and wellbeing of hundreds of people served by THRA still hangs in the balance.
On August 31, THRA reports, it received a letter from the landlord of its storefront location on East Cesar Chavez Street, in downtown Austin. The landlord demanded that THRA immediately stop operations like distributing naloxone and other harm reduction supplies. The letter cited the nature of the services themselves, and the fact that local residents had filed complaints with the property manager. The landlord threatened to evict the group if it didn’t comply.
Austin City Council members subsequently intervened, and helped negotiate an agreement between THRA and its landlord. THRA can now stay in its location—but is required to reduce services, shifting some to a mobile van, and to try to prevent people from standing in a nearby alley.
“Certain folks nearby don’t like what we do.”
Gaby Libretti, THRA’s drop-in center lead, explained that state law already makes operating any harm reduction program in Texas very difficult. But local residents who object to seeing drug use or homelessness in their neighborhood can make matters worse.
“We moved to a part of Austin that has a lot of unhoused people,” she told Filter. “We’re on a very walkable street, near some camping areas and the bus stop. We have a lot of people coming over here on foot and people staying unsheltered.”
“Pretty much since we opened the doors there have been different issues that have come up in the neighborhood,” she continued. “We’ve gotten a lot of support, we haven’t always been under intense scrutiny but … certain folks nearby don’t like what we do.”
As well as directly distributing supplies that protect health and save lives, THRA connects people to providers of medications for opioid use disorder, like buprenorphine, on request. It provides many other resources, too—like showers, food, a weekly “women’s day,” housing assessment, street medics and legal aid. The THRA team is composed of people with lived experience of substance use, homelessness and incarceration.
But when THRA received the landlord’s notice, right after it had finished holding an event to mark International Overdose Awareness Day, all these services were put into question.
The group transitioned temporarily to mobile-only distribution, at the corner of Brushy Street several blocks away. Meanwhile, THRA called up members of the Austin City Council who have supported its work in the past. This ultimately led to the agreement.
“This is a short-term solution which speaks to the long-term issues of the accessibility of harm reduction services here in Texas.”
“As Chair of the Public Health Committee, it is my job to advocate for strategies that improve the health and wellbeing of all Austinites,” said Vanessa Fuentes, City Councilwoman for District 2, in an emailed statement to Filter. “This includes supporting the life-saving services that THRA provides every day. Although we were able to reach a compromise to continue their drop-in services at a limited capacity, this is a short-term solution which speaks to the long-term issues of the accessibility of harm reduction services here in Texas.”
“We do not comment on specifics as it relates to our tenants,” the landlord’s property manager told local outlet KXAN. “That said, we support the mission of Texas Harm Reduction Alliance so long as they remain committed and accountable to being good neighbors.”
Despite the compromise being reached, Libretti said that the situation is still tenuous. THRA will be under increased scrutiny and pressure to monitor the surroundings of its building.
“The notice was not completely revoked, we are still at risk operating the site,” she said. The landlord still has a lot of power over us … [We were told] we could see people but if there were problems, they might intervene.”
Harm reduction supplies like syringes and fentanyl test strips are currently classified as drug “paraphernalia” by Texas law. State lawmakers have introduced one bill that would remove criminal penalties for possession of such items, and another to exempt syringes and needles specifically. But so far, neither has moved in the legislature.
“We’ll find ways, we always do. As harm reductionists in a state like Texas, we’re very creative.”
A bigger issue is the scarcity of harm reduction programs across the huge state. Despite being the second largest state by population and land area, Texas has only one legally authorized syringe service program, in San Antonio.
Travis County, including Austin, currently has the highest rate of fentanyl-involved overdose deaths in Texas, at over five fatalities per 100,000 population in 2023 so far. In 2020, there were 44 recorded fentanyl-involved deaths; in 2022, there were 123.
Libretti said harm reduction providers always face a risk of tensions with local residents and businesses, no matter how hard they try to prevent them.
“We’ll continue to build relationships in our community,” she said. “We hope eventually we’ll find a space that’s more supportive of the work we do that allows us to continue without threat. No matter what, we’ll always continue doing the work. We’ll find ways, we always do. As harm reductionists in a state like Texas, we’re very creative.”
Photograph of fentanyl test strip by Morgan Godvin