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Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) Advocates for Behavioral Health

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While many organizations focus on putting a stop to all drug use, those built around the principles of harm reduction take a different tack, seeking instead to effect wholesale change through policies and programs that acknowledge the drug use while reducing the harms that are associated with it, at both the individual and the public health levels. The Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC) is one such organization, and for the last 20 years it has been meeting people who use drugs “where they’re at,” while looking beyond to the communities they live in, which are often riddled with issues, including poverty, discrimination, violence, HIV/AIDS, and hepatitis.

HRC's Training Institute Provides Professional Support

From its offices in New York, New York and Oakland, California, HRC provides trainings for case managers, intake specialists, community health workers, outreach workers, nurses, and substance abuse counselors, among others. Through HRC’s Training Institute, they work with drug treatment programs, HIV-prevention programs, health departments, health care centers for people experiencing homelessness, and supportive housing programs. Trainings also include workshops and webinars on pertinent issues including drug use, behavioral health, overdose prevention, and hepatitis C prevention and treatment.

“We ground advocacy work in what we hear from the community about what the emerging issues are, what the gaps are, and what’s working on the ground,” says Daniel Raymond, HRC’s policy director.

In addition, HRC offers technical assistance nationwide. For example, some 80 representatives of drug treatment programs, health departments, HIV-prevention groups, and family groups advocating around heroin and opiate addiction issues attended a two-day HRC–run training in northern Kentucky earlier this year, says Raymond. Although the workshops were thorough, covering myriad harm-reduction–related topics that included outreach, overdose prevention, and engaging out-of-treatment substance users, attendees also knew they were welcome to contact the HRC later for additional guidance and resources. HRC held a follow-up training in Kentucky in October.

“The goal is to provide information, training, and support for people who are trying to find ways to work more effectively with substance users,” says Raymond.

HRC's Biannual National Conference Guides Advocacy Efforts

Perhaps one of HRC’s biggest sources of information is its biannual national conference, which was held most recently in Baltimore, Maryland in October. In an overview to attendees, HRC executive director Allan Clear wrote that, although “Change is slow, there are signs that we are experiencing a version of drugs glasnost. The totalitarianism of the War on Drugs is melting at the edges. As the thaw continues, we need to be at the forefront of setting the new agenda.” That agenda, says Raymond, includes a lot more cross-collaboration on advocacy efforts, as well as on integrating across programs that are reaching the same populations. Drug treatment centers, public health and social service providers, and law enforcement officials presented solutions to how they might best work together.

“I think that’s actually a pretty encouraging thing, because in our earlier years, at a lot of the conferences, people coming from harm reduction programs would express how they struggled and they felt marginalized, and they were trying to connect to other service providers in the continuum of care,” says Raymond. “It seems like collaboration has really emerged as a key theme and an area of activity and possibility.”

Key Themes Emerge from Conference Abstracts

Raymond noted that many of the conference’s abstract submissions were related to supportive housing, Housing First, and effective health care for people experiencing homelessness. Other key themes were the facilitation of coverage and access to care for vulnerable and marginalized populations, along with the best ways to find innovative financing mechanisms for supporting community-level work outside of clinical settings—specifically, for community health workers, recovery coaches, and peer navigators.

Hepatitis C was another theme that recurred at the conference. Although there is a growing awareness of the disease, driven in part by the success of new treatments, says Raymond, HRC is concerned about pricing and access challenges, especially among people who use drugs, people who are incarcerated, and people experiencing homelessness. Hepatitis C is also a problem among young people, many of whom acquire it through injecting drugs, and Raymond says it is a symptom of the work that needs to be done to better reach out to and engage youth. Given the rise in the number of youth using heroin, more effective messages and strategies are called for. Yet, says Raymond, these are people who often fall through the cracks of some of the prevention messages. So he and his colleagues are looking at how best to use social media as a strategy in getting young people who use drugs into care and treatment.

Overall, Raymond says he is optimistic that the country as a whole has a better awareness of drug use issues, along with an openness and a willingness to tackle public health strategies that defy much of the conventional wisdom and partisanship that were remnants of the War on Drugs.

This article was published to highlight the theme of Drug Use. Learn more about HIV, AIDS, and Viral Hepatitis and about Housing First at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 04/19/2016