March 28th marked the one-year anniversary of the Community Risk Reduction Services’ partnership with St. Luke’s Church on the Avenue, the first fixed site for Syringe Exchange Services in the state of Maryland. And while anniversaries are usually triumphant celebrations, we allowed this one to slip by unnoticed. Its conception was a difficult and somewhat divisive matter for our congregation and the broader community to consider and no amount of fanfare could counter the truth of the matter: opioid related deaths in Maryland continued to increase by 5% last year with 2,114 reported deaths, and at least 12 people from the Hampden community have fallen to overdose since November. If anything, this annual marker is a call to a deeper commitment to harm reduction in our neighborhood.
For too long American culture has shamed, marginalized, and criminalized individuals battling addiction. We have been programmed to loathe our neighbors or their kids, to wish them locked up and thrown away while families are torn apart, children are orphaned, and human beings are rendered homeless and left for dead. Perhaps this sounds hyperbolic, but this is the reality to which we have all contributed, and it pains me to confess my part in it. Yes, addiction causes real pain and challenges among social structures for which there are consequences, but it is our collective ignorance and dismissal of addicts as lawless, irresponsible, and reckless that perpetuates the stigma and prevents healing for individuals and communities. We see addicts as “junkies” and we strip them of their personhood. We have helped our neighbors believe they are garbage. I am ashamed that I still struggle to shed myself of these engrained attitudes as I come to know our neighbors, especially those who have lost the battle for their lives. For this, I am deeply sorry.
I will say that I am grateful for the people of St. Luke’s who are committed to processing the reasonable and irrational fears of directly engaging this epidemic. I’m proud they have even embraced the responsibility and willingly endure the unforeseen challenges that come with this work. I am also grateful for the Hampden community, its residents and business owners, for permitting us and encouraging us to act in this way. I am most grateful for and proud of those who take the risk to trust us and to utilize these services.
I understand that some in our community are angered by this approach for a variety of reasons, particularly that we seem to be enabling illegal drug use. However, the faith of this congregation compels us to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner.1 Our awareness of this epidemic demands our action, as imperfect as it may be, to preserve life and restore human dignity. Further, the tradition of this church teaches us that all people are simultaneously sinner and saint,2 and therefore we are able to recognize the goodness in others whom we are quick to judge as well as name our own failings lest we think we are greater than others. We seek to name and expose the good in our neighbors.
Since we opened, the exchange has welcomed over 100 individuals who make regular use of the program at various intervals. On average, we now see 10-15 people each week, all of whom are community residents. Only a handful of times have individuals from other areas come to the site. Over 160 people have received Narcan training and free doses of the opioid blocker, Naloxone, which reverses overdose and buys critical time for medical care. We have firsthand evidence that this service alone has saved the lives of several of our neighbors. However, the prevalence of Fentanyl often complicates the efficacy of the life saving antidote. Fortunately, our site now also provides Fentanyl test strips, a hopeful tool for OD prevention.
We have been learning a lot about the difficult, unpredictable, and necessary work of harm reduction. We continue to learn about the variety of circumstances and social dynamics of addiction, as well as the challenges and roadblocks to recovery. We do our best to meet people where they are without judgment and expectation. We continue to learn the stories of individuals who have grown up in this community and call this neighborhood home whether they sleep under a roof, the overpass, or a storefront. Hampden is our shared home, and we have many neighbors who are struggling for their lives.
Harm Reduction is the front line against this epidemic. It is hope for another day. These services are a necessary point of engagement and access to critical resources, most importantly, caring relationships. And because of the connections our volunteer team has been able to cultivate, we have a better understanding of individual challenges and needs. Thus, in addition to the services provided by the health department, Hampden resident and HCC board member, Guli Fager, has been diligent to forge new partnerships with community organizations. Healthcare for the Homeless is now offering outreach services during the exchange hours every week, providing basic social services, referrals, and helping participants discern vital needs. The HCH staff is able to support individuals and walk alongside them through decision-making and help connect them with clinics, healthcare, and insurance. We are also exploring ways to expand services offered and seeking the means to provide actual healthy meals on a weekly basis. In the meantime, we appreciate donations of toiletries and hygiene products, snacks and nutritional supplements like Ensure & Boost to serve as part of our hospitality. You can contact me via the info below for more information.
In closing, our team has seen the palpable reality of opioid addiction, and while this continues to be an uphill battle, there is so much hope. We may have skipped the cake and confetti, but this anniversary also marked the opening of the second fixed site for syringe exchange in Baltimore at New Covenant Community United Church of Christ in the Morrell Park neighborhood. The Gospel of Harm Reduction is spreading, and we invite you to join in sharing it.
A great deal of thanks is owed to the Community Risk Reduction Services & Healthcare for the Homeless staffs, and especially to our committed team, Guli Fager, Susan Borchadt, Ashley Wilkes, and Jenny Erhardt. And to you, Hampden. Thank you.
Rev. Jim Muratore is the pastor of St. Luke’s Church on the Avenue at 800 W. 36th Street and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by text or phone at 443.402.5828.
1 Matthew 25:31-46
2 Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans