Browsing Category: Southern Initiatives

Atlanta Adds Southern Flavor to Harm Reduction

By Tessie Castillo, NC Harm Reduction Coalition

You know you’re in for a good time when a conference kicks off with an electric guitar performance. Last week Atlanta hosted the 2nd Annual Southern Harm Reduction conference, launched with a spirited song about jack shacks and brothels and sung by a former sex worker from Georgia…and it only got better from there. Throughout the three day conference, active and former sex workers and drugs users gathered with law enforcement, veterans, academics and community service providers to discuss hot button issues such as overdose prevention, safer crack use, mass incarceration, human trafficking, and drug policy. The event aimed to add southern flavor to harm reduction, a concept usually synonymous with government-funded syringe exchange programs in northern states. But while New York and Massachusetts might have a strong harm reduction presence, small nonprofits and activists from all over the south are quietly addressing issues such as syringe access, appalling rates of HIV and hepatitis, mass incarceration of minorities, violence against sex workers, and drug user stigma.

Take Atlanta for example. Syringe exchange is illegal in the state of Georgia, but Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition (AHRC), who was one of the conference hosts hosted, has been providing life saving syringes to drug users and taking dirty needles off the streets for years. Rain, snow, sleet or hail, you’ll see Mona Bennett and her famous button hat offering HIV testing, referral to drug treatment, or a helping hand to people who use drugs.

Further up the coast, the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition provides harm reduction based direct services and advocacy, as well as trains law enforcement officers on how to avoid accidental needle-sticks and works with them to advocate for saner drugs laws.  In addition, organizations like Project Lazarus have saved hundreds of lives through educating medical providers and the community about overdose prevention.

To the west, Streetworks in Nashville is educating drug users on how blood borne pathogens spread through crack and injection drug use and works to improve the lives of people who use drugs.

Dip down to New Orleans where Women with a Vision provides women and sex workers with empowerment tools for how to lead healthier lives and to serve as their own advocates. These organization are just a few of the many harm reduction programs working to save lives, reduce stigma, and make safer communities below the Mason-Dixon line.

There is a lot of harm reduction in the South, it’s just not as visible as elsewhere. Southern programs grapple with different challenges than northern states, such as greater stigma, fewer resources, and complex legal situations. Southern harm reduction isn’t big and flashy, but small groups of dedicated people are making a difference in every state. The conference in Atlanta was a chance to come together and to learn about what works from people who are doing it. It was a chance to realize, “hey, we’re not alone.” It was a chance to say, we don’t have to bring harm reduction to the south, because we’re already here.

What People Said About the Southern Harm Reduction Conference in Atlanta:

“This conference is a chance to grow harm reduction in the south. I love it because I feel like my neighbors are getting closer.”

– Mona Bennett, Atlanta Harm Reduction, Atlanta, GA

“The incredible attendance for the conference speaks to the commitment in the south to be part of a harm reduction movement and to highlight the issues we face here, because they are unique.”

– Deon Haywood, Women with a Vision, New Orleans, LA

“As a law enforcement officer, I feel encouraged that people from various disciplines are willing to put their differences aside and come together to discuss greater safety and better communities for everyone.”

– Ronald Martin, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, Raleigh, NC

“Using drugs doesn’t make anyone less of a person. We’re here to learn how to protect drug users’ rights and to reduce the harm caused by active drug use.”

– Ron Crowder, Streetworks, Nashville, TN

“I’m stoked at the number of people who have poured out to support southern harm reduction. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve always said that if we could bring support and experts to the south and begin to educate our folks about harm reduction, we could really start to see changes here.”

– Jeff McDowell, Atlanta Harm Reduction, Atlanta, GA

“I’m here to learn and to support my fellow peers in the trenches…I believe we can learn from each other. We get a lot of edicts from the CDC about prevention measures, but what works in New York might not work in the rural south. At this conference I can meet someone from Kentucky who is doing great work and I can bring it back to my state and emulate it.”

– Art Jackson, Independent, Fayetteville, NC

“It’s wonderful see participation from sex workers and people who use drugs. Living in Washington DC it’s easy to get away from that, so it’s important for me to listen and participate and to get involved with people on the ground.”

– Whitney Englander, Harm Reduction Coalition, Washington DC


*To see conference photos go to the “Southern Harm Reduction and Drug Policy Network” Facebook page

*To check out the podcast on the conference go to the following link:

Mobilizing in DC for World Hepatitis Day

by Leilani Attilio, Intern
North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition

On July 28, 2012, North Carolina  Harm Reduction joined other hepatitis activists on the White House lawn to commemorate World Hepatitis Day with a special focus on Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) and the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV).  Hepatitis has reached epidemic proportions around the world, including the United States, but has largely flown under the radar in communities.   Approximately 805,000 to 1.4 million people1 and 3.2 million people2 are infected with HBV and HCV in the United States, respectively. Unfortunately, people who are infected with HCV, which is the leading cause of liver transplants and liver cancer in the United States, may not have any signs or symptoms for decades, making the spread of the disease more pervasive.  In addition, to give a sense to the seriousness of the disease (if the word “cancer” wasn’t enough), deaths due to HCV have surpassed those from HIV/AIDS3.  In an effort to curtail further transmission and deaths, the White House hosted the fifth World Hepatitis Day on August 2 to bring awareness to the threat of the disease across the country.

Featured panelists and speakers at the White House included Congressman Hank Johnson, who spoke about HCV as a person living with the disease; Dr. Howard Koh, the Assistant Secretary for Health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS); and Dr. John Ward, Director of the Viral Hepatitis Program at the CDC.  The gathering was a platform to roll out strategy plans, recommendations, and tools for surveillance.  For example, the CDC unveiled an online risk assessment tool for hepatitis.  The brief questionnaire asks various questions such as year of birth and nativity.  At the end of the questionnaire, the assessment tool generates a printable summary and recommendations to discuss with your health care provider.

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is working closely with the North Carolina legislature for the state to adopt recommendations supported by numerous professional medical organizations such as American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, and Institute of Medicine.  These recommendations include syringe decriminalization, which would allow us to conduct syringe exchanges in North Carolina without criminal prosecution.  Injection drug use is a risk factor for HCV due to practices such as sharing needles during injection.   The coalition is looking forward to minimizing the risk of disease for all people and collaborating with other organizations t do this.  We hope you will join the fight.  The first step is to raise awareness. Consider this step checked off.

The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is a grantee of AIDS United’s Southern REACH initiative.


1. Weinbaum CM, Williams I, Mast EE. Recommendations for identification and public health management of person with chronic hepatitis B virus infection: MMWR 57(RR-8):2;2008.

2. Armstrong GL, Wasley A, Simard EP, McQuillan GM, Kuhnert WL, Alter MJ. The prevalence of hepatitis C virus infection in the United States, 1999 through 2002. Ann Intern Med. May 16 2006;144(10):705-714.

3. Ly KN, Xing J, Klevens RM, Jiles RB, Ward JW, Holmberg SD. The increasing burden of mortality from viral hepatitis in the United States between 1999 and 2007. Ann Intern Med. Feb 21 2012;156(4):271-278.

Rebuilding and Healing

by Maya Wyche, Program Manager
Southern REACH

On May 24, 2012, Women With A Vision (WWAV), a member of our AIDS United and Southern REACH family, fell victim to arson. While the crime is still under investigation, the women who embody and those who look for comfort in and through WWAV, are doing their best to move on through the smoke.  The surrounding community, clients, and peer advocates, as well as national and international partners and supporters have answered their cry for help.  Assistance has varied from heartfelt $1.00 to thousands, such as $5,000 donation from AIDS United, and from the provision of temporary office space within a local church to the potential for donated property.  Although they have come a long way from where they were in the immediate aftermath of the fire, with the slow to start resumption of services, much healing has yet to manifest.

Women with a Vision after the fire logoAs a woman and fellow New Orleanian, it is disheartening to know that some individuals will go to such lengths to disrupt progress and further marginalize woman of color.  I wish I could say that injustices such as this were rare in the South and specifically New Orleans. However, the marginalized and disenfranchised populations, such as the women serves by WWAV who are facing challenges such as addiction, domestic violence, and most notably all ills resulting from poverty, are all too often victimized. This crime could be perceived as a catalyst for a bleak and hopeless situation – from my viewpoint it is an opportunity for change. Crisis calls attention to serious matters and this fire will be fuel for heightened advocacy, which holds the potential for far reaching, long standing systems changes. Let us continue to stand with WWAV and most importantly the women encouraged by and dependent upon their powerful advocacy and nurturing assistance.

Stay updated with the work of WWAV by clicking the links below:

My First Day” by Shaun King

For All that We Have Won, For the Future We Will Make” by Rebecca Gibson

Making Jewelry, Making Change

Story from local news outlet on the WWAV arson

Advocating for ADAP: Florida Legislature Approves $2.5 M Increase in ADAP Funding

By Butch McKay, Executive Director, Okaloosa AIDS Support & Informational Services (OASIS)

As a Southern REACH Grantee of AIDS United, Okaloosa AIDS Support & Informational Services (OASIS) is proud to announce that the Florida Legislature approved a $2.5 million dollar increase in general revenue funds for the Florida AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP).  Through our Activate! U Advocacy Academy program, OASIS played an active role in mobilizing the community around this legislation.

A little over a year ago Florida led the nation in the number of people living with HIV/AIDS on a waiting list for ADAP, with 4,000 plus people representing over 50% of the US total.  To reduce that number, the Florida HIV/AIDS Bureau proposed lowering the eligibility requirement for ADAP from 400% of the Federal Poverty Level to 200%.

The first goal Activate! U tackled was to organize consumers to attend and speak out at four statewide hearings held by the Florida Department of Heath around the proposal.  We had trained over 1400 advocates through our grassroots advocacy training and reached out to them all.  More than 1100 people attended four regional hearings, one of the largest gatherings ever for a public hearing around an HIV issue. The majority of them were graduates of our training and, for many of them, this was their first time to speak publicly. Their message was heard and the HIV/AIDS Bureau did not recommend changing the income level for ADAP eligibility.

We next joined forces with the Florida HIV/AIDS Advocacy Network (a statewide advocacy network that receives guidance and support from The AIDS Institute) to develop strategies to increase funding for ADAP in Florida. Through emails, letters, social media, and legislative visits we generated support for the Senate budget subcommittee Chair Joe Negron’s proposal to increase ADAP funding from general revenue funds dedicated to HIV care by $5 million.  We asked our constituents to write thank you letters to Senator Negron and we called on them to ask his counterpart in the House, Representative Matt Hudson, to match the Senate proposal in the House budget. Through the efforts of the advocates, the House, which originally had no increase in their budget, proposed a $2.5 million increase which the Senate accepted and the measure passed. We followed up with a campaign directed toward Governor Rick Scott to not apply a line item veto of the ADAP increase in the budget. This effort proved successful and the increase was approved.

Our next project is to inform consumers on the changes occurring due to Florida Medicaid Reform. There will be public hearings in June that for which we will encourage community participation, and, when Medicaid Managed Care is approved, we will educate consumers on the importance of open enrollment and providing information on the different available plans.

Activate! U has enjoyed three years of success. It is our vision to teach HIV consumers and their allies how to effectively advocate for themselves and to provide them with detailed talking points related to critical legislative issues that impact HIV care, treatment and prevention. We help people find and use their voice.  We work toward living in world without AIDS.  The success of our efforts has been enhanced with the support of AIDS United and the Ford Foundation through the Southern REACH Program.

AmeriCorps Week | Team Carolina

Team Carolina has been busy. For AmeriCorps Week, we traveled North Carolina to find individuals who embody the message: “Life does not stop after a positive diagnosis.” Our long term project started with an idea, and has now blossomed into the production of a public service announcement campaign. Millions of individuals get newly diagnosed every day. Without the proper support system, these individuals may feel lost and alone. Additionally, because HIV-related stigma may keep people from disclosing their status, they may lack the public education necessary in order to take the next step after a positive diagnosis. We aim to produce awareness and information that help relieve this problem.

When we conduct interviews, we ask our interviewees to answer our questions as if they are talking to an individual who has just been newly diagnosed.  As a result, we hear suggestive, honest, nostalgic, and regretful commentary. One of our goals for this project is for newly-diagnosed individuals who may see it to begin to feel like they have a community they can turn to.  As human beings, a sense of community is something we naturally long for. When a stranger who has been positive for twenty-some years is telling you that life will be okay, the message becomes not only powerful, but intimate.

Team Carolina has conducted over ten interviews and the footage is truly inspiring. We have traveled from Charlotte to Greensboro to Fayetteville, while also recording anecdotes within the Triangle Area of North Carolina as well. Once interviews are completed, the editing process will begin. Our goal: one short public service announcement, one long(er) informational piece, and several commercial-length videos. It would be a dream if AIDS service organizations across the country could use the footage as an avenue to reach newly diagnosed people in their area. To launch the finished project, we plan on having a screening party with other local AmeriCorps teams, several AIDS Service Organizations, and the local community and media.

All of this could not have been possible without the assistance from AIDS United, and the University of North Carolina Center for AIDS Research. They have enabled us to maximize our resources in order to cover the various facets of this production.

North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) Organizes North Carolina Advocates to Participate in the National Day of Action on Syringe Exchange

By Robert Childs, Executive Director
North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition

On Wednesday, March 21st, 2012, North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) organized local clergy, law enforcement, diabetics, people of transgender experience, lawyers and drug users from around North Carolina to particpate in the National Day of Action on Syringe Exchange. Congress recently reinstated the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs (SEPs).  SEPs provide sterile syringes and collect used syringes to reduce transmission of viral hepatitis, HIV, and other bloodborne infections associated with reuse of contaminated injection equipment by drug users and diabetics.  Most SEPs are part of a comprehensive health promotion effort that includes HIV & hepatitis testing, education on reducing sexual and drug use-related health risks, and referrals to drug treatment & other medical and social services. Republicans in the House were successful in reversing policy on syringe exchange through FY 2012 Appropriations in December 2011. They re-imposed a complete ban on the use of federal funding for SEPs despite overwhelming scientific evidence showing decreased HIV, viral hepatitis and drug abuse among SEP participants, not only improving public health but also saving tax payers millions of dollars.

On March 21st NCHRC organized three actions: a mass letter writing campaign, a phone bank and a meeting with Senator Hagan’s office in Raleigh, NC.  We asked Senator Hagan to be our champion on this public health issue and to commit to the following actions:

  1. Ensure negotiations restore Congress’ FY 2010 syringe exchange language for both the federal and Washington, DC jurisdictions in FY 2012 appropriations legislation.
  2. Include language from FY 2010 on syringe exchange in the programmatic appropriations request letters due March 29th.
  3. Release a statement in support of restoring federal funding for syringe access programs.
  4. Encourage the North Carolina legislature and governor to decriminalize syringes and/or legalize syringe exchange.

Sen. Hagan’s office personnel gave us an indication of support, but promised to run the issue by Senator Hagan for a definitive answer on her position. At our meeting in Raleigh with Hagan’s office, we brought together advocates from various backgrounds to discuss the issue during our 30 minute meeting. As Executive Director, I covered an overview of SEPs and the history of federal funding while Ronald Martin (one of NCHRC’s law enforcement consultants with over 20 years of law enforcement experience) explained why law enforcement benefit from SEPs.  He stated, “Why would we not want syringe exchange? Research has shown a 66% reduction in law enforcement needlesticks in communities where SEPs exist. One out of three law enforcement can expect a needlestick in their career and I support any measure to reduce harm against our officers.” Reverends Jenna and Andy outline the moral imperative for life-saving SEPs, and our diabetic and transgender allies discussed the need for syringe access among these populations. To round out the meeting, Lucas Vrbsky from the NC Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers discussed the social justice benefits of federal funding for SEPs, Lisa Hazirjian from the NC AIDS Action Network demonstrated the financial benefits of SEPs as well as HIV prevalence among injection drug users, Faina Shalts (from Harvard’s SHARP crew) explained SEPs’ public health benefits and Tessie Castillo (NCHRC’s Harm Reduction Coordinator) completed the ask.

We would like to thank our allies and NC coalition members from Wilmington to Franklin who made this day a success and allowed us to put a southern stamp of support on this national issue.  Even though NC does not have legal syringe exchange, we support federal funding for syringe exchange because if the federal government shows support by allocating federal dollars for SEPs, it assists us in making the case for southern states to adopt these measures as well.   NCHRC hopes to see the US Senate, especially our representative Kay Hagan, champion this issue and send the message that our state supports an initiative that would improve NC and the nation’s public health and safety.

North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition is a grantee of AIDS United’s Southern REACH initiative