Overdose Prevention Centers Save Lives
This week, the US Department of Justice is expected to rule on litigation against Safehouse, which seeks to establish overdose prevention centers (OPCs) in Philadelphia, a city deeply wounded by the overdose crisis. Despite rising overdose rates among Black and Indigenous communities, and in regions with limited harm reduction resources, only two OPCs publicly operate in the United States.
I have had the opportunity to visit both of these OPCs in New York City on numerous occasions, and each time I am brought to tears. Full body, stop and catch my breath tears.
I am awestruck that the OPCs have been utilized by community members 45,773 times since opening in late 2021. I marvel at the compassionate care offered, including hot showers, clean clothes, acupuncture/massage, meditation, medical care, medication for opioid use disorder (OUD), mental health counseling, access to drug treatment and housing, and more. I am ecstatic that there have been 603 overdose interventions and zero fatalities at these programs.
These are not the reasons that the OPCs bring me to tears.
I am brought to tears by the mirrors on the walls in the OPCs. Specifically, the mirrors in the safer use booths where people can use their drugs under the watchful eye of staff trained in safer injection, safer smoking, and overdose response. The mirrors allow staff to see each participant from the center of the room should anyone experience a medical issue and need help. Because staff members can observe the first signs of an overdose, they can respond quickly and efficiently, protecting life, increasing safety, and decreasing discomfort.
These are not the reasons that the mirrors in the OPCs bring me to tears.
The mirrors bring me to tears, not for what the staff can see, but for what they enable me to see, and what I hope they enable everyone who visits and uses the OPCs to see, and that is that people who use drugs are people, made in the image and likeness of God, loved and cherished. That the lives of people who use drugs are not only worth saving but are worth investing in.
When I first looked in the mirrors at the OPC, I saw reflections of earlier selves. The face of someone struggling to survive PTSD, who used drugs to medicate the terror and despair. The face of a queer person divorced from her siblings at a pastor’s recommendation, ashamed and isolated. The face of a brilliant artist struggling to express her way out from under this shame and stigma.
In the mirrors at the OPC, I could also see people as they moved behind me, my need to forever look over my shoulder quieted. I noticed my beautiful brown eyes, radiant with all they have seen and held. I beheld images of all the others in the space, talking, laughing, and touching, remembering the many faces of God which had surrounded me with grace and hope when I needed care. I reflected on the ways I had been taught to look at myself differently, by noticing the way others looked at me, with worth and dignity.
I learned to see love and to recognize my own belovedness by first being seen.
It is my prayer that every person who visits and uses the OPCs has this experience of being seen, of being seen for their humanity and worth. That all people who use drugs have access to life saving, life changing OPCs, and to see themselves mirrored in love!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rev. Erica M. Poellot is the Minister of Harm Reduction and Overdose Prevention Ministries for the United Church of Christ, Executive Director of Faith In Harm Reduction, and Senior Ministry Innovator at Judson Memorial Church in NYC.