“People deserve to be healthy, regardless of their choices. We wouldn’t deny a smoker an inhaler for their asthma but with drug use there’s so much more stigma attached.” Violet believes we can go a long way in reducing the stigma if we just talk about it and understand each other’s concerns.
When you meet Violet you can’t help but smile. She lives up to her name with her shock of purple hair. What’s more compelling is her undeniable love for the work that she does at Sanguen Health Centre. “To be out in the community improving people’s circumstances, even in the tiniest of ways, feels like we’re making a difference and that’s what gets me out of bed each day.”
Sanguen is a non-profit, health care agency with a focus on meeting the needs of those living with or at risk for Hepatitis C. Support is provided to clients through education, outreach and medical care. For Violet, a big piece of what she does each day as the Manager of Outreach is preventing illness or injury, also known as harm reduction. “If we can prevent one person from getting Hep C, we’ve done our job. Treating Hep C is costly — the medication alone can be over $100,000 so prevention goes a long way in saving the community money.”
When Violet first started working at Sanguen in 2011, outreach looked very different. Often it was as simple as social workers, nurses or peer workers making visits to people’s homes. “Whenever we’d make a visit, people would say that they had friends, a neighbor or a relative who was in need of our services. We just knew that we weren’t reaching enough people.”
In 2015, after many years of talking about it, Sanguen decided to launch an outreach van. “We bought a used Bell Canada van, slapped on our logos and hit the road. We had no idea what we were doing!” Violet and her outreach team started off in locations where they had been doing home visits in the past with a plan to distribute harm reduction supplies like clean needles. They also planned to provide overdose training to visitors and ultimately help people get tested for HIV and Hep C. From the very first night people were interested in the information and in being tested, but they had bigger concerns on their minds.
“People kept asking us if we had food or hot chocolate. They were looking for basic necessities like soap and band aids.” After a couple of nights on the van, Violet and the team shifted gears and started bringing along basic necessities. “We made hundreds of cups of hot chocolate that first winter!”
The hot chocolate helped bring people out to the van while building trust week after week. Over time numbers grew from 10 people to over 300 weekly visitors. The van is in operation three evenings a week making nine stops across Waterloo Region. “We see anywhere from 50 to 60 people per stop. We don’t leave a location until everyone has been seen.”
For some it’s difficult to understand how handing out clean needles could be beneficial to anyone. Violet understands having grown up herself in a small farming community where the most she learned about drugs was that “people who used drugs were bad and dangerous. They were scary people who did terrible things.”
When Violet started working at Sanguen she met people who were using substances. She realized very quickly that it was such a small part of who they were even though for many it was what everyone focused on. “We have to remember that people who are using drugs in a problematic way are not having fun. It’s not enjoyable for them at this point. Regardless of their choices they still deserve to be well.”
For Violet the key to harm reduction is keeping people healthy until they are ready for a more positive path. “Addiction is a really intense thing for people to work through. We need to keep people alive until they are ready to seek treatment so they can come out the other side and have an opportunity for a happy, healthy life.”
Violet hopes that people can be open to learning more about harm reduction and how it benefits the community. Her advice is to look at people coping with problematic substance use as people worthy of compassion and dignity. “When you let people know that they have value as part of our community regardless of what they do or what substances they use — that brings up a whole level of connection for people and allows them to grow.”
For more information, visit Sanguen Health Centre.