San Francisco’s Glide outreach team provides harm reduction supplies to save lives

Bay Area

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KRON) — In a city where fatal drug overdoses are skyrocketing, the idea of giving people who use drugs the equipment they need to get high may seem counter intuitive.

The members of this street outreach team leave Glide Memorial Church with messenger bags stuffed full of what they call harm reduction supplies.

Clean needles, safe smoking kits for crack and also condoms can be found.  

The idea is to also stop the spread of HIV, Hepatitis C and sexually transmitted infections.

“When a person is diagnosed with HIV, post diagnosis the average taxpayer supported medication regimen for the rest of your life is $366,000 last I checked,” Bill Buehlman said. “So if we prevent three people who inject from getting HIV a year, that’s 1 million bucks right there.”

They also dispense sharps containers to give those who use needles a safe way to get rid of them. 

Test strips are handed out that people can use to determine if fentanyl is in their drug supply. That’s the powerful opioid behind the city’s escalating fatal overdose rate. They also give out Narcan.

“If you can’t beat the drug addicts and stuff like that, you might as well join them and try to help.”

In an alley in the Tenderloin, a 39-year-old man named Jay prepared a fresh needle with a combination of meth and heroin.

A friend shot him up in the neck because most of his veins are used up after so many years of using on and off. He understands the needles he’s given helps keep him and his friends from getting and spreading disease.

“You know if you had to use one over and over and someone else didn’t have one they’re going to use yours,” Jay said.

He also said he gets offers from the outreach team of help to stop using drugs, which he says he’ll do again one day.

“They offer you all the options to get clean,” he said. “But if you’re not they offer you the options to stay clean while you’re using.”

The director of Glide’s harm reduction program says giving people suffering from substance abuse disorders what they need helps build trust, and that trust helps convince to those out on the street to come in to get tested, treated, and in some cases — cured of disease.

“No one began using drugs thinking I’m a plane pulling down my trousers and shooting in my groin and maybe got it then go have to sell my body so I can get my next hit — that was nobody’s ambition ever when they started using drugs,” Paul Harkin said. “People need to be supported and supporting them for the most basic to give them the equipment they need so they don’t get infected with any diseases and treating him with humanity and dignity that’s where it’s at.”

Those on the outreach team said they’ve heard the criticism that what they doing just enables people to use drugs.

They say — that’s not the case.

I haven’t ever seen anyone who uses drugs who is unable to use drugs I do meet people who are unable to access sterile equipment or a safe place to use them,” Buehlman said. “If i can help them with either one of those, I am absolutely glad to to be enabling that dead people never get a chance to change or go to rehab right?”

Those on the outreach team believe a chance to change is what everyone deserves. 

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