COVID-19 forced the shut down of their satellite sites, meaning Jenn Boyd, Harm Reduction Coordinator for the AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area (ACCKWA) no longer had an outlet to reach the people she helps. Boyd says the pandemic created an even greater challenge and checking-in became more important than ever.
With little or no time to communicate to them what was happening, the grief of watching what she had built, over the past four years, collapse was overwhelming.
Boyd grew up with substance use around her. She says her inability to find help for her loved ones created feelings of isolation and shame which would influence her to develop similar coping mechanisms as an adolescent.
“It became a goal of mine to try and stop this from happening to others, to be there for people and to talk about substance use openly - bring the humanity back into it,” she said. Working in Harm Reduction allows her to support without barriers.
She says there are still misconceptions surrounding drug use. “In many cases, not all, drug use has nothing to do with drugs and more about feeling safe, feeling less pain. This is why changing drug policies to abolish drug use has always failed and will always fail. The criminalization of drug use is abusive and not grounded in evidence; it is grounded in moral judgement and stigma.”
Her directive is to work in HIV, Hepatitis C prevention, as well as Overdose awareness and prevention. Boyd says, “the folks I meet and work with in the community show me the best parts of humanity, even though many face the consequences of the worst parts of humanity.”
The ideology that she enables drug use is upsetting to her.
“It has existed for as long as anyone can remember and will always exist. It is a part of society. I accept that truth and exist to reduce the harms that can be associated with substance use. It is that understanding that makes me a part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
COVID-19 created new barriers for the often-forgotten community. “The grief I felt not knowing how folks were and how to reach them was powerful. People lost a lot of access to food and other services that helped them get some of their basic needs met was and is very scary to me,” she said.
Despite this, she is able to find silver linings, creating five new programs, including drop-in spaces and a backpack outreach program. “It feels more grassroots and even though we can’t reach everyone, I will continue to try and find places for us to reconnect.” She admits this creates a lot more work for her, with fewer resources, but seeing people and being able to be there is worth it.
Although she can no longer sit close to the people she watches over, she still takes solace in the act of checking in from a distance. “I can’t hug the folks that really need physical touch to help them with the extreme isolation. This loss of connection is heart breaking,” she said. “The impact on the people I work with is immense and the small gestures I could once provide are missing.” She often leaves them feeling hollow.
Going forward, she is working on creating community connections that will afford access to housing, income, food and counselling. Thanks to the pandemic, there is an uncertainty now as to where the funding will come from.
“There is so much stigma towards people who use drugs and those working with them to make our community safer for everyone. The one that bothers me the most is that people see people who use drugs as less than human. We live in a society that does not address trauma effectively and too many people fall through the cracks with few services available to them.”
You can support ACCKWA here. Donations of hygiene items, socks, hats, mittens, shoes are also needed.