Honoring survivors and revivers this International Overdose Awareness Day

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By Katie Houston
Prevention Point Pittsburgh

I work for Prevention Point Pittsburgh, the only syringe service program (SSP) in the western part of PA.  In Pennsylvania there are only two authorized SSPs in the entire state: ours in Allegheny County and Prevention Point Philadelphia. That means most Pennsylvanians are unable to access lifesaving services that help prevent the spread of blood borne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C.

We are obviously a place where folks are able to access sterile syringes, but we do so much more than that. We offer free HIV, Hep C, and other STD testing so folks know their status. We offer wound care assistance, so folks can seek medical help without worrying about judgement. 

And of course, we provide naloxone, the opioid overdose reversing drug, to keep folks alive. Since we started our Overdose Prevention Project in 2005, our participants have reported over 3,000 overdose reversals. This number is almost surely an underestimate.

As I reflect on International Overdose Awareness Day, I think of all the amazing people I have met who utilize our program.

I think of the folks who drive hours to PPP, sometimes across state lines, to pick up sterile supplies not only for themselves, but for others in their community who don’t have consistent, local access to unused sharps and works.

I think of the parents who’ve come to pick up naloxone to keep their children safe, and of their faces when they ask me, “What do I say when people tell me we should just let them die? That when they say that they are talking about my child?”

A participant recently came to our office to pick up extra naloxone. She shared the story of the five overdoses she reversed just within the last couple of months. This woman, who is a person who uses drugs, is a life saver. The participants of Prevention Point Pittsburgh are life savers. 

I am lucky to get to work with these life savers, but many are surprised to hear me say this. Society views people who use drugs so poorly that some people are shocked when I talk about how much I love my job. We are only taught to view people as their drug of choice. But they are artists. They are aspiring chefs. They are nurses, mothers, fathers, children, funny, and compassionate.

They are life savers.

Think about how many times you’ve heard someone say the word “junkie” or “addict” with disdain in their voice. This must change, now. Stigma combined with punitive prohibition style laws does nothing but continue to isolate people and further disenfranchise the poor and people of color in America. By constantly condemning those who use drugs, we are forcing them to hide.

What if we decided to take a different approach? Instead of punishment, we listen, we offer safe places where folks can be themselves, we help people access the services and resources they need to live, we work to end poverty, we increase compassion?  This is what harm reduction is about and this is why I work at Prevention Point Pittsburgh.

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Click here to watch the footage of first hand stories of overdose survival and revival from Prevention Point Pittsburgh’s Survivors and Revivers event, which took place on August 27, 2019.