The Faces of Harm Reduction
Every day in the world of harm reduction, people across Ohio are doing grassroots work to keep people safe. Much of this work is on the ground or behind the scenes. Every Friday, we will be spotlighting a harm reductionist. We will be interviewing them, highlighting their work and organizations, and sharing their cashapp/venmo so people can support their work, or get involved.
To kick it all off, we started by interviewing Christopher Hawkins, a founding member of Harm Reduction Ohio. Chris currently serves as our Scientific Advisor, and volunteers with Newark Homeless Outreach.
Katie: How did you first get involved with harm reduction?
Chris: Dennis (Harm Reduction Ohio’s President) and I had become friend’s downstairs at the River Road coffee shop. I would come in in the morning, have a scone and a cup of tea and he would come in as well and just hang out. We started talking and became friends. And Dennis was a rabble rouser in Granville before I knew him, frequently taking governmental leaders to task and things. One morning he asked me if I’d be interested in setting up and running the harm reduction Ohio’s naloxone distribution program. I was retired, and I like challenges. So, I said, Sure, why not? I don’t think either one of us had any idea what this entailed. Dennis had dreams of distributing Naloxone across the state of Ohio, being the visionary kind of guy. But we had no infrastructure for making it happen. That’s where it started.
Katie: So, you hadn’t heard of harm reduction before that?
Chris: Yeah, it was new to me. Dennis knew I had a PhD in chemistry, figured that I’m reasonably bright, so he said, yeah, you can probably do this. That was that was how it started.
Katie: What was it like in the beginning?
Chris: Before I had even started, Carole Robinson distributed several hundreds of naloxone kits, mostly as a one-off event. She showed me how to use PirateShip (a shipping label software), and all the types of forms we needed to fill out. I oversaw the mail order requests and the bulk distributors. The paperwork was a nightmare. The state wanted us to have every individual’s personal information, so if there were ever a recall of a batch of naloxone, we could notify the right people. It makes sense in theory, but given the population we were working with, was completely impractical. Not everyone has an address, and people are wary of the government.
The forms our lay distributors had to fill out were detailed and invasive, so I wouldn’t get paperwork back. These distributors were awesome at getting the product into people’s hands who need it, but we barely got any paperwork back, which got us in trouble with the state. I had to make decisions like do I keep sending naloxone to someone who’s not turning their forms back in. They’re saving lives and doing the job, but they’re putting our supply of naloxone in jeopardy because we weren’t meeting the paperwork requirements.
Katie: If you don’t meet the requirements, could they stop sending you naloxone altogether?
Chris: It got to the point where they told me that until we got the paperwork cleaned up, they wouldn’t send us any more Narcan. That was terrifying. We almost ran out of Narcan several times. We never actually ran out, but we had less than 25 kits in the office for several days, and keep in mind, we were getting 20 orders a day. At this point, we still don’t have a system to keep track of all the shipments and processes. Its 50-hour work weeks, late nights in the office, and lots of calls and emails, but eventually we got back on track. The other issue was the data never matched up. The questions ODH forms asked weren’t the same as NextDistro questions. One form would say “have you ever overdosed?”, and another form would say “Have you ever overdosed in the past year?”. Those are two different questions, and how do you resolve that? How do you accurately report the data? There were already some systems in place, and we needed to figure out how to be a connector, and work within the infrastructure that already existed. We just had to keep going. In January of 2020 we started advertising mail order distribution, mostly through Facebook. And it was an immediate, wild uptick in orders.
Katie: 2020? That puts you right at the beginning of the Pandemic. How did that change things?
Chris: The pandemic brought a whole other raft of complications. Bulk distribution goes way down, mail orders go way up, and finally I started building these big spreadsheets to keep track of all this stuff. We needed to keep track of naloxone distribution numbers, locations, lay distributors and their standing on paperwork, if they had filled out the right forms, as well as purchasing labels, shipping supplies, printer paper, folders, stickering Narcan boxes, and putting together IM kits. We had a bunch of volunteers throughout these times that helped. That was cool. As a full time, volunteer, I started to burn out.
The demands of this volunteer position were hurting me physically and mentally. In March, I finally decided I needed to step back. I wasn’t maintaining my mental health. However, I promised Dennis, I wouldn’t leave him in a lurch. I said we’re not going to let the program go down. You know, people’s lives are at stake. I mean, literally, people’s lives are at stake. I hung on for six months after that to try and help make sure someone else knew the system. I’ve continued to be involved and contribute where I can. Through my work with HRO, I became friends with Trish Perry of Newark Homeless Outreach. I got to know her and appreciated her work, she’s a major harm reductionist. So, I’ve continued working in harm reduction, in a different way.
Katie: What do you do for Newark Homeless Outreach?
Chris: Every Saturday at the corner of Buena Vista and Main Street, catty corner from the jail, we set up. We see between 80-100 people every week. We give out tents, sleeping bags, blankets, food, hot meals, non-perishables, harm reduction supplies, Band-Aids, gauze, alcohol wipes for cleaning injection sites, condoms, lots of stuff. We do food, shelter, and clothing. I’ve been doing it for two years now, and in those two years I’ve only missed 3 Saturdays. One of them was Christmas. You get to know people who come by every week, and soon enough you’ve got a lot of new friends. We talk about how they’re doing, what they’re struggles are, and I listen, and help when I can. The personal interactions I get, the people I have been lucky enough to meet have given me a much deeper understanding of the issues they face, and the unfairness of the criminal justice system. Once you get into the system it is almost impossible to get out.
Think about it. When someone is in the system, they have court dates, hearings, and lots of bureaucratic processes. To get to court you need a car, which means you need the money for the vehicle, insurance, and gas. Not to mention you need to be able to go at any time, so good luck holding down a job. If you don’t have that, you need to know someone who has a car, who has the time, who has the money. Our system wasn’t built for people to get out of. It’s been a transformative experience, working with HRO and NHO, meeting lots of cool people, helping some, learning so much about the crises our community faces. The challenges, the successes, that we’ve had, what we’ve accomplished, and all the work to be done. There’s plenty of work that needs done both at the legislative level and at the community and individual level.
The paperwork I did at Harm Reduction Ohio was important, and I know we saved lives. We had hundreds of overdose reversals, and those were just the ones that were reported. At the same time, being a smiling face at homeless outreach is important too. You do what you can.
KATIE: Do you have anything else you’d like to share?
CHRIS: I’m happy to see the naloxone distribution program at HRO has grown significantly and is running smoother than ever. And it’s a lot less stressful for the people involved. I guess in the end, the pay was lousy, but the experience changed my life for the better. Prohibition never works. Never has and never will. I repeat that all the time because I want it to catch on. Look at the history of everything in the United States. Prohibition doesn’t work. Pick a taboo thing. Did Prohibition work? No. There is no one size fits all solution for recovery, just like in the classroom. Think about students with learning disabilities. The curriculum wasn’t set up for them, and you can’t force it to. You can change the curriculum to help the student succeed. Everybody’s path is different. Harm Reduction helps with that. In Harm Reduction, you work to mitigate harmful outcomes, and meet people where they are, instead of forcing them on a path. People need treatment options, community support, and understanding. After I retired, I had a lot of time on my hands. I had to decide what I was going to do to fill my days. You want to do something to help people, and you do what you can. So yeah, that’s my harm reduction story.
To support Chris’s work, you can donate here on Paypal through OhioCAN, or send a check to 838 S 30th St #107, Heath OH, 43056. You can follow their Facebook page @. You can find them at 184 East Main St, Newark OH 43055 every Saturday from 12 PM – 2 PM, until the summer hours change from 10 AM – 12 PM. They provide food, harm reduction supplies, hygiene products, and community resources for addiction, housing, and jobs.