“I’m so glad I ran into you guys, it’s been weeks. Where have y’all been?”
This is a sentiment any HIPS outreach worker will hear if they stick around long enough. Most recently, it’s an unhoused HIPS participant who I’d been searching for in his usual stomping grounds, but had been unsuccessful in connecting with until now.
HIPS is a D.C.-based harm reduction organization that provides drop-in, clinical, and outreach services primarily to people who use drugs, people engaged in the sex trade, unhoused individuals, and others engaged in street economies. Many of our participants exist in a manner of perpetual precarity, where — because structural violence pervades without resources like a phone or stable housing — staying connected to us and other service providers can prove challenging. In this case, our participant is fentanyl-dependent and relies on us for sterile syringes, safer injection equipment, and Narcan. So the HIPS outreach van’s consistent presence can literally be the margin between life and death. At a minimum, the van is a stopgap for preventing bloodborne illnesses like HIV and potentially serious skin infections.
A typical HIPS outreach shift involves a Team Lead — usually a staff member — and two to three additional volunteers. HIPS serves the entire city with harm reduction resources like safer sex supplies, wound care kits, and safer smoking equipment and we rely primarily on donations to fund high-demand basic items for survival like food, bottled water, hygiene kits, socks, and thermal blankets and handwarmers in colder weather. The need is endless. Without committed volunteers experienced in harm reduction techniques who also keep our 24/7 hotline and other vital programs operating, regular outreach shifts would not be possible. Harm reduction outreach is often the bridge for our participants to re-engage in care; to facilitate finding a shelter for the night; to safely share traumatic experiences of losing loved ones to overdose or experiencing violence while unhoused; and more frequently than ever due to the city’s ever-increasing contaminated drug supply, directly responding to overdose ourselves.
Despite this, during a typical shift, I notice anywhere from five to twenty police vehicles. More often than not, an officer is idling in a parking spot. On multiple occasions, we’ve served more than 20 individuals in a single location — many of whom we know by name or face — while the same police vehicle has remained across the street, unmoving, despite an officer’s clear presence. When police do engage with the community while the HIPS van is present, it is almost always to harass and intimidate participants trying to access services, and often us as well by extension.
Along with the unpaid labor of volunteers to succeed, HIPS relies on direct service staff who make a fraction of what the average Metropolitan Police Department officer earns, with little of the same job security or benefits (that, for MPD, comfortably exceed even most other government employees). While Mayor Bowser unveils a $30 million dollar plan to increase the police force to 4,000 and expand MPD’s existing annual budget of over half a billion dollars, HIPS’ 36 staff members are among those calling upon the city to decriminalize drugs, establish life-saving overdose prevention centers, and meaningfully invest in a harm reduction infrastructure for D.C.
This infrastructure would include $1.5 million for a 24/7 harm reduction center to provide desperately needed wraparound support for people who use drugs, sex workers, unhoused individuals. For these community members who participate in street economies, these forms of care are essential for survival amidst a housing crisis that has devastated Black Washingtonians in particular, and an overdose crisis that killed a record-high 567 people in 2021 — 86 percent of whom were Black.
Many HIPS staff and volunteers have lived experience with sex work, drug use, and being unhoused. Many of them come directly from the communities we serve. The vast majority have a personal and emotional connection to harm reduction work. Our lived experiences, specialized skillsets, and connections to community are what makes us effective. We often have closer relationships with participants than most service providers and engage in community-building and solidarity alongside them. Those connections also mean that the ever-increasing losses, year after year, of community members to violence and preventable overdose are deeply felt and incredibly traumatizing. It is nowhere near the degree of needless pain, grief, and trauma felt by our most marginalized participants, who deserve so much more from all of us.
And here’s one thing I can say definitively: we need to divest from MPD immediately to properly fund forms of community care like HIPS.
Amidst an overdose crisis that is by any reasonable standard a public health emergency, the D.C. Council needs to act swiftly to divest from carceral systems of punishment and instead fund real systems of community care, including the health and harm reduction services being proposed by #DecrimPovertyDC.
Shane Sullivan is a community outreach coordinator with HIPS and a core organizer with the #DecrimPovertyDC coalition.