Making Life Safer For Drug Users, One Harm Reduction Kit At A Time
Each week, Conners attends a Sherbourne Health drop-in group to eat pizza, chitchat with friendly faces, and save lives.
He’s a dedicated attendee of the Kit Packing Group, a drop-in where people who are current and former drug users gather to prepare hundreds of harm reduction kits, that are then freely distributed by Sherbourne Health.
Harm reduction refers to practical strategies and ideas focused on reducing the negative consequences commonly associated with drug use. Harm reduction also refers to a social justice movement that is centered around respect for the rights of people who use drugs. A commitment to harm reduction is built into every service Sherbourne Health offers, as people who use drugs are part of our communities.
The group averages five weekly visitors and packs around 500 kits a week, with contents differing depending on what’s needed in the community. A kit for people who use crystal meth may have smoking supplies that are safer alternatives to commonly used, but less safe options, for instance.
These kits are available for free to anyone who accesses Sherbourne Health’s programs, makes an appointment at the Health Bus, or visits the outdoor cabinet outside the front entrance.
“Without the group, people would still do drugs, but it wouldn’t be safe,” Conners says. “The kits keep people safe, they keep people from dying.”
Addressing A Crisis, With Shared Purpose
The group started last year as a proactive response to local need for supplies, which has become more urgent as the opioid overdose crisis has worsened: Toronto’s opioid-related deaths have increased by 271 per cent since 2015, according to the City of Toronto’s 2022 statistics. “We were seeing a lot of long-time Sherbourne clients and community members come in, asking to volunteer, give back and help us meet the need for harm reduction kits,” says Jenn Hupalo, Mental Health and Harm Reduction Program Coordinator. In its first year, the group made and distributed more than 32,500 kits.
In recognition of the ways income and food security contribute to the health of the group’s attendees, as well as the value of their work, the Kit Packing Group pays each participant an honourarium and provides lunch. Group members have the opportunity to get training that can be useful for working in the health and social service sectors. One group member used their training to get employment at STASH, Sherbourne’s supportive space for drug users.
Sometimes, attendees share insights that help Sherbourne stay aware of the latest community needs: “We hear a lot of opinions, including feedback about harm reduction practices across Sherbourne and Toronto, as well as alerts about drug use,” says Jenn.
Nikki Burcul, a facilitator of the Kit Packing Group, says she has noticed the group has helped decrease social isolation. Attendees can sit down and catch up with friends, which they were sorely missing during the height of pandemic restrictions.
Co-facilitator Emily Padilla has seen the group make a difference in the overall wellbeing of its attendees. “A lot of clients, they may see a barrier in communicating with their health care provider for help,” says Emily. “This group creates a safe space for folks to network for resources, both from each other and by talking to me or Nikki. It’s a much different environment from a doctor’s office.”
Conners has been involved with Sherbourne Health since his first Health Bus visit in 2001. While he can turn to his doctors for his chronic back pain and diabetes, he likes how the group makes it easy to get help for other aspects of his life.
“I just moved into a unit in Toronto Community Housing and if I need support with that, like getting a dresser, this group can connect me with a furniture bank,” he says. “Beyond the kits we pack, this group is a big help.”
The Kit Packing Group runs every Thursday, starting at 9:30 a.m. STASH is a weekday drop-in for people who use drugs that provides harm reduction supplies, support, connection to resources for shelter and/or long-term housing, snacks, hygiene items, and even quick essential health care for people who are unattached to a primary provider. To learn more about Sherbourne Health’s harm reduction services: https://sherbourne.on.ca/mental-health-harm-reduction/harm-reduction/