The door of Harm Reduction Services in Oak Park opens and in walks a soft-spoken man of 27. He's an IV drug user and he's homeless. He's grateful as he exchanges used syringes for clean ones from volunteer Erin "Presh" Grieshop. Chad Fallis, has been a client for 6 years. He says he doesn't know where he'd be without HRS. "It would probably be a bad place."
Presh, short for LIttle Precious, is calm and supportive. Afterwards, she says the clients are "so stigmatized, but they're human like anyone else." She works with drug users to make "small behavioral shifts" such as exchanging needles to prevent spreading infectious diseases.
"I really do love taking care of people," Presh says. "Sympathy is very different that empathy. Sympathy is talking. Empathy is doing. Sympathy is 'those people.' Empathy is 'us.'"
Throughout the course of their conversation Presh mentions the "911 Good Samaritan Bill" recently passed in California that will go into effect in January 2013. The new law removes the threat of criminal prosecution for those seeking help for someone who is overdosing on drugs and needs medical attention. The aim is to prevent fatal overdoses in drug users. Harm Reduction Services wants to spread the news about this law as conversations with addicts allow them to. "I let them guide the conversation," Presh says. The first goal of HRS is to get drug users to come use their services and keep coming back. Then they provide education as their clients are open to it. They educate about health, infectious diseases, laws, safe sex and more.
"It's a street level approach to people who need all sorts of help with all sorts of issues," Presh says. "Any path to sobriety is fantastic but it can be so intimidating. You need to accept everyone as a package deal. I think HRS is so realistic, not intimidating and more approachable."
That day a 25-year-old women brings her 22-year-old friend in to HRS for the first time. "Can we get new needles?" the older woman says. The younger, very pretty woman seems surprised at the resources available to her. She gladly accepts a clean "cooker" so she won't use a spoon that her dad uses to eat with and a sharps container so her cat won't get poked by unattended needles. The other women accepts bandages to dress a wound on her leg. "Thank you for your volunteer time," she says to Presh and shakes her hand before leaving.
"Hope without limits" is the slogan of HRS and one that Presh practices.
"At least they are here," Presh says. "They can not feel shamed by their situation and maybe they'll have some pride that they are taking their health seriously."
Peter Simpson, the Executive Director of Harm Reduction Services says that out of 100 people who are using drugs, 90 percent of them are still using after a year. Most funding goes to the 10 percent of people who are trying to quit using drugs. "We are here for the other 90 percent," he said. They sent 1200 pound of discarded syringes to disposal last year alone.
"Needle exchange reduces infection. It does not encourage people to start using or use more," Simpson says. "It's saving people lives and keeping people healthy."
HRS receives no public funding for their syringe exchange program and survives solely on donations.
To learn more visit www.harmreductionservices.org.
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