I started SWAN because I was at a city meeting in 2016 when I saw the news about a so-called ‘prostitution’ sting in New Haven. They had pictures of 14 women and that upset me so much because that could’ve been me 50 years ago. I was outraged that all that money was spent on criminalizing people who were just trying to survive. So I knew that I had to do something and I was a little bit scared because I was in the closet about my past. But I just couldn’t stay silent, so I outed myself to the police chief.
I am very well-known in the city as being an activist so I sent an email to the police chief and told him that we had to meet, that this was not right and had to stop. Long story short, he agreed to see me and from that meeting he called off the stings—there haven’t been any stings in New Haven. They talked about arresting the dates, but we’re against that too because it’s just going to drive the women into the shadows. They’re doing sex work to survive and taking away their livelihood is just going to force them into dangerous situations. You’ll never arrest away sex work never. Decriminalization is the answer you don’t get arrested, you don’t get a ticket, you don’t get anything.
SWAN’s main goals are to get people to recognize sex work as real work, to treat people who engage in sex work with dignity and respect, and to stop trying to criminalize them. We offer harm reduction services, such as handing out clean syringes, and we take back thousands of used syringes and get them off the street. We also offer groups and support. We have accompanied people to court, we have bailed people out, we have spoken to prosecutors about their cases and we’ve been successful because they’ve heard about SWAN.
We had a self-defense class for the community, not just sex workers, that was very popular, and we offer groups that SWAN members have said they wanted—like we had a psychiatrist and a social worker come and talk about what trauma is and how your body reacts. When the women brought up that they would like an STI group, we got some nurses to come with STI kits. If the tests came back positive, the women were treated and everybody learned how to prevent STIs. The work we do is so important it’s saving lives and it’s uplifting lives, too.
I think right now the most important thing we can do is get Narcan into the hands of as many people as we can. Not just people who use drugs, but people all over the city: storekeepers, restaurants, people who walk through the city, anybody in the neighborhood. We’re seeing an uptick in overdose deaths so we want to expand our outreach as much as possible. Narcan saves lives and people shouldn’t be afraid to use it or think there’s a stigma.
Every time there’s an overdose, I post on Facebook, ‘If you need Narcan, it’s free, and we’ll do the training pass this message on.’ And when there’s bad dope out there, when there’s a spike in overdose deaths, we put out an alert, ‘There’s bad dope, be careful, don’t use alone.
Roxy – New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition Community Ambassador
I was in a recovery house after getting out of prison and a friend of mine told me about the Red Project. I found out that they have recovery coaches and I was like, ‘I’m signing up for that,’ mainly for the resources and just to have that support. They were very relatable and even in a short time it seemed like they were concerned with things that were going on with me.
If there’s something they don’t know about, they will find the information, that’s what I really appreciate about them. No matter where a person is, they really meet them where they’re at and try to enhance their quality of life. I’ve witnessed that and know they’re not just about the talk. That’s why I ended up working here.
I mostly stock the supplies and stuff like that but I also deal with a lot of people. In a sense, sometimes I even become a counselor. I get to share my experiences with people and listen to other people’s experiences. When I greet someone, I greet them with a smile and say, ‘What’s up, what can I do for you today, what’s going on with you?’ I’m asking open-ended questions that they can answer or not. I just allow them to basically dictate where they want to take our interaction.
A lot of people get the misconception that you have to be off drugs or trying to get off drugs to get help and I’m like no, that’s not the case. We’re here to improve on your quality of life and help you get to where you want to be. Getting off drugs and being off drugs is an option, but we’re not here to force you to change who you are or who you want to be until you’re ready. If nothing else, utilize the resources. We’re not discriminating about who we help.
Red Project NEXT supplies being prepared for mailing distribution.
I can’t remember much of the first six months after we lost our apartment. It’s like a fog. I’ve had anxiety and being homeless has made it go up so much. For somebody with anxiety, having to be in that fight or flight mode—and I’m always fight, I don’t run—constantly having to be on edge really messes with you.
So when we got to DESK, as soon as we walked in you could just feel the love. They were like, ‘You’re new’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah, where do we get clothes, where do we get food, where do we even just brush our teeth?’ I think what really helped is that they took the time to get to know us. They didn’t look at us and automatically write us off. They don’t coddle you and treat you like a child, but they don’t pity you as well. In a sense, they give you the tools for you to either do things on your own or help you figure out how to do it.
A lot of times people will be like, ‘Well, just get another place.’ James has the income but with an eviction in Connecticut, it’s almost like a death sentence. You have something on your record for seven years and when you’re low-income, the only places that you can rent won’t take you because of the eviction.
In general, everyone classifies people who are homeless into three categories: that you have a problem with drugs, alcohol, or mental health. But some people just fall on hard times. It’s not always addiction or mental health.
The thing I love about DESK is I can have a bad day where I can scream and they’ll be like, ‘Alright, what’s going on?’ They’re not like, ‘Whoa, you’re being rude’ and threaten to kick you out. It’s never, if you say something we don’t like or if you talk out of line or if we don’t agree with something in your life—they don’t hold that over your head. That is so vital.
Partners, James and Harley, at the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen
A lot of people see the relapse or the usage but they don’t see the recovery, so I’m very thankful that my clientele has given me the opportunity to see both sides. It’s been very rewarding. I had one client who was pregnant—I knew she panhandled but I couldn’t find her. Then after hours I was driving with my children and I saw her on the boulevard. I went home, dropped my children off, came back and met her where she was at. I didn’t know that that gesture would impact her as much it did. When she would disappear, she knew I would come find her on the boulevard. So that has stuck with me—I wanted her to know that someone cared. Another client, I was with her family for three years and she still calls me. Every goal that she accomplishes that we made together, she calls me when she accomplishes that goal. She says, ‘I’m not sure that this is still your number but I’ve got to let you know.’
I think it’s really important for everyone to understand that just because the mother uses during pregnancy, it doesn’t mean that it will have a long-term effect on the child. I have seen some very, very highly intelligent children who were born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. They want to learn. And they still care about their parents. They don’t view their parent the way that the world views them. That’s still mom.
Lilianna – Ruth Ellis Drop-In Center Director
I got connected with the Ruth Ellis Center through a friend. I needed an escape from where I was living at the time so I started coming here and they had programs that I was really interested in, like the youth advisory board. That’s essentially a board of youth from the community that help create events and strategize about different programs. I applied for their peer leadership program and from there I’ve just been moving my way up their talent pipeline.
Now I’m actually the coordinator of the youth advisory board, the group I was in as a young person. We have a lot of passionate people come in and share their thoughts around programming, and new ideas and collaborations we can create to have more programs that really meet the needs of our community.
I think it really just takes someone to listen to break down stigma and stop jumping to assumptions. I always operate from a space of unconditional love. Like I’ll be honest with you, but I will also try my best to understand where you’re coming from. Because I know that a lot of it is just lack of knowledge and when you have certain privileges, you’re kind of blinded to what somebody else is going through.
I know from my experience with my grandmother, when I was living with her we would argue back and forth to the point where sometimes she would put me out and I would have to stay with my neighbor. But I still continued to love her. I still continued to be like, ‘Hey, let me wash the dishes,’ or ‘Do you want me to go to the store with you?’ I continued to help her because it’s like although you don’t agree with my lifestyle, I’m still going to love you unconditionally to show you that I understand that the world portrays me a certain way considering that I’m a black gay male, but I want to show you that that’s not who I am as a person.
Being unapologetically me and showing unconditional love was hard, but it paid off in the long run. After I got the job working here at Ruth Ellis and she saw that I wasn’t what the media portrayed a black LGBTQ person to be, she was like, ‘I apologize. I love you.’ And then we had the opportunity to talk about why she was treating me that way and why we went through what we went through. She said it was from fear of what society was going to do to me because of who I identified as, because of the stigma. We were able to sit down and really open up about that.
Terms to describe the contrast between currently using or not using, appear frequently in media about Substance Use Disorder. Many of the commonly used terms carry stigma, even when used in what may seem like a positive way.
We do a lot of street outreach so we partner with our local street psychiatry team and nonprofit harm reduction suppliers and just go out and try and connect with people and find out what services they need.
I think just listening to people and being willing to show that you have the time to talk with them is the most effective skill I’ve learned so far. Because if somebody isn’t ready to talk to me about signing up for insurance or being connected with a methadone clinic but they’re willing to talk to me about why they want housing, then I can build that rapport as somebody that they can trust. Also as somebody who wants to hear about what they have to say, to make sure that our approach is appropriate and effective.
We’re finding that more and more people are overdosing with stimulant involvement and that fentanyl is now being combined with stimulants in New Haven. But there’s a misconception that it’s still only in heroin or opioids, so we’ll be out on the street talking to people and they’re like no, I don’t need to talk to you—I use cocaine. So a lot of our work is about what kind of messaging do we need to get out in New Haven specifically about what’s happening here.
We’re doing surveys to try to gain a better understanding of the lived experience of overdose and what people felt they needed after an overdose. Was it Narcan? Was it methadone? Was it access to [sterile] syringes or a recovery support program? That will guide the post-overdose response plan we’re developing so we can follow up with them if they’ve consented to that and link them to services or find out about any needs that we can help fill.
Nicole Batista and participants in QVHD overdose education and Narcan training at a store in New Haven, CT.
I always wanted to support healthier outcomes for street-based sex workers. I wanted to hear firsthand what they thought they needed—or what they knew they needed so the idea of the house came about from attending meetings and spending a lot of time talking about stigma with the population that we were serving and it being a barrier to having groups. My dream was to be able to provide a safe space where a woman is accepted for who she is in that moment with no expectation of who she should be. I wanted to do ground-breaking, innovative, block-hugging work and Project Safe really supported me. I didn’t have to convince them that street-based, sex-working, drug-addicted women deserved the same respect as Michelle Obama. I believe that in my soul, and I believe she believes that.
Keith – SWAN member
Having places like DESK means this to me: (singing the lyrics to “Lean on Me,” by the late Bill Withers). I’ve been in recovery for a long time and I lost a person—that was his song: we all need somebody to lean on. It’s tough staying clean. Some people fall and it’s devastating. Some people die and it hurts. It hurts family members. You can’t be bitter about it.
I’ve been in recovery since 1989, when I tried to change my life. Just meeting a lot of people and staying connected, like people here who give me clothes and backpacks. You know when you fall, you come back and you strengthen your brother—that’s what it’s all about. You can’t do it on your own.
Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen supply area.
I stopped injecting drugs in 2011 so carrying Narcan and worrying about fentanyl wasn’t as prevalent then. When Narcan started to be more accessible, I got trained right away and made sure I always had extra and just kept looking out for my friends who were still using. In New Jersey, we only have seven syringe exchanges so they’re kind of hard to locate and there’s none in Middlesex County so we were like, what if we filled the gaps? What if we got syringes to people through secondary exchange? What if we handed out Narcan where there’s no free Narcan? In 2019 we started doing outreach in New Brunswick and it just took off from there.
When we started offering fentanyl testing strips, I think that let people know that we get that drug use is happening. A lot of times I would just ask, ‘What else would be helpful to have?’ And people said we need syringes, we need clean supplies. People have asked us for pipes so that’s next on our list, to find some funding for that. This community knows 100 percent how to take care of themselves—they just need resources. So we really just try to be aware of what’s going on, ask people if what we’re doing is working and let them lead us. If we can be the link to resources then we’ll be the link to resources—literally meeting you where you’re at.
When we decided to start a phone line, somehow we were able to get 877-4 NARCAN. Then when everything happened with Covid-19 we wanted to make sure people had as much Narcan as possible for the quarantine and we had a huge response. Not only from family members of people who use drugs and people who used to use drugs but also from different programs. One of our first calls was from an inpatient treatment center that didn’t have a way to get Narcan to give people when they’re leaving so we made sure they had it. Then we got a call from a hospital that has recovery coaches who meet people after they overdose and kind of guide them. They didn’t have a way to give them Narcan so we’re like we’ll get you some. We started to do Zoom trainings for overdose reversal and prevention and it just caught on.
We do naloxone mailings twice a week and about half goes to people directly—like if you texted us we’d send you a kit and a little note, keeping it anonymous so nothing is traceable if you don’t want someone to see it. People who request Narcan are able to say why they need it and a lot of times it’s something as simple as, “I don’t want to be seen going to the pharmacy in my town to ask for it.” You have to say you’re at risk for an overdose to get Narcan at a pharmacy in New Jersey, and some won’t even give it to you so mailing it takes away that stigma.
Also, New Jersey doesn’t have a great public transportation infrastructure so having a mailing option really allows us to get to more rural places. We’ve met people who have become community distributors so they’ll say, ‘Is there any way you could mail me 10? I live in a house with a bunch of people who are at risk.’ We have some people who we mail 50 kits a month and they get them out throughout the state which really allows us to cover ground that’s harder to reach.
I think people put unnecessary barriers on distributing naloxone but my thing is just get the Narcan out there first and then we’re going to go back and figure out why this gap is happening, so that’s become a mission.
New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition Narcan distribution supplies.
I’m a social worker so my whole thing is working for vulnerable and marginalized populations. As a person of color, I face a lot of issues myself so I knew I wanted to give back to society and Detroit Action is all about helping black and brown communities. So the service I’m able to provide, the community engagement, fits into what I went into social work to do. That’s what keeps me going and motivates me. Being able to help people get a simple thing like a birth certificate and seeing how much impact it makes on them reminds me of why I became a social worker in the first place.
We help people get their birth certificate as well as state ID. They come to our office with all of the documents and we fill out the form for them. We cover the fee as well because a lot of our clients can’t afford it. For a birth certificate, it’s like $34 in Detroit but every county has a different fee. Detroit has one of the highest fees which is ironic given that it is one of the poorest cities in the country.
Without a document as simple as a birth certificate or state ID, people can’t really do anything. In Michigan, you need some form of ID to be able to vote, and then without a birth certificate or state ID most of our clients can’t get into housing or shelters. So it’s a huge challenge because it’s literally stopping them from doing everyday things. It also affects their mental health. A lot of clients come in and they’re very anxious and upset, which is understandable because it’s so hard for them to get a simple document.
We had one client come in who tried to get her birth certificate from the city of Detroit. She was telling us she paid like over $40 just to get it overnight and they still weren’t able to get it to her. So she paid that fee when she’s already low income and they wouldn’t refund it. She came to us and was like, ‘Even though I have to wait two weeks, at least you guys are paying the fee and I know I’ll be able to get it.’ The system is really broken and it’s not really helping the people it’s supposed to be helping.
Esther Mae Rosner, Program Officer, Overdose Prevention Program