fbpx

GLIDE’s Unconditional Legal Clinic

When Gary woke up in a Daly City hospital after suffering a brain hemorrhage, a hospital administrator informed him that his car had been towed. Unable to leave his hospital bed, Gary called the tow company to explain why he was unable to move his car. But despite explaining that he was not only hospitalized but homeless, and that his car was also his residency, Gary was told that his car would not be released until he paid $9,000 in fees.

This was in part due to San Francisco’s 72-hour law, which says that all vehicles parked on city streets can remain parked in the same spot for only three days in a row, at which point the city is permitted to tow the car without notice.

Gary spent the holidays hospitalized, trying to focus on recuperating, while his phone rang incessantly with demands to pay mounting tow costs—costs that were rapidly rising with exorbitant storage fees for every day his car remained impounded. By the time Gary was finally released from the hospital, the tow company had sold his only home at a lien sale, leaving him without any shelter or his belongings.

A civil justice gap

Across the United States, minor civil infractions like Gary’s are derailing the lives of low-income people who lack the savings necessary to cover an unanticipated expense. And few cities provide legal resources to support people who can’t afford a lawyer or other legal costs.

Legal resources are more readily available for some specific areas of the law, such as immigration; and in criminal cases, a defendant has a constitutional right to a court-appointed attorney. But what does a low-income person do in child custody cases, or evictions, or when they return to their parking place to find out their car has been impounded?

Founding the Unconditional Legal Clinic

James Lin, GLIDE’s senior director of mission and spirituality, recalls the day in September 2013 that “a preppy-looking white guy wearing a polo shirt” walked into GLIDE and introduced himself as Charlie.

At the time, Charlie Crompton worked as a lawyer at one the largest law firms in the city, Latham & Watkins. But Charlie was looking to help a clientele that rarely entered the privileged space of his office building. Charlie’s interest in public service led him to the Tenderloin, where he saw the need and the opportunity to integrate legal resources with the wide range of social services offered at GLIDE.

Word quickly spread that there was a trustworthy lawyer at GLIDE who got things done, for free. By leveraging his extensive legal network, Charlie was able to streamline the on-site, no-cost, drop-in legal services that would become the Unconditional Legal Clinic.

The free legal counsel and resources folded perfectly into GLIDE’s holistic approach to services, which provides loving non-judgmental support for people seeking to obtain and maintain the essentials of life—housing, jobs, benefits and family—amid the hardship of poverty and related challenges.

Like other services provided at GLIDE, the Unconditional Legal Clinic was born out of a need in the community, and it grew organically in its commitment to that need.

A new partnership

When, in 2014, Governor Jerry Brown tapped Charlie to be a superior court judge, the future of the Unconditional Legal Clinic seemed uncertain.

But Charlie is a creative problem-solver, and he once again turned to his network for possibilities. Having sat on the board of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR), Charlie went to them with a proposal and ultimately secured the collaboration of LCCR pro bono attorneys, supported in its administrative costs by two years of funding from his old firm of Latham & Watkins.

GLIDE was now a secure bridge for immigrants whose first language might not be English, for refugees who may not know their rights, and for low-income communities of color in need of legal guidance and support, all of whom could benefit from connecting with lawyers committed to protecting and advancing the civil rights of anyone and everyone in need.

Representation and dignity

“It has been very healing,” says Bréyon Austin, who studied Tribal and Criminal Law in Albuquerque before joining LCCR and who for the past year has been working at GLIDE’s Unconditional Legal Clinic. “I grew up homeless and will always feel that I am part of this community. I wanted to use my law degree to support people in the same situations I myself experienced.”

This is the uniquely reciprocal nature of GLIDE’s Legal Clinic: not only does it provide members of the community with the legal services they need, but it also offers lawyers an immersive experience into the reality of impoverished communities in San Francisco, people struggling to navigate through a confusing and often unjust maze of legal barriers.

For low-income people fighting to survive on the fragile footings of poverty, the results of minor violations can be devastating, especially considering how quickly they tend to snowball.

A vehicle tow, for instance, can mean the loss of transportation, or shelter, or both, which can lead to loss of employment as well as the loss of access to education and medical care. Not only is retrieving a car from a tow lot expensive, but it is also incredibly time-consuming. And for each day the car remains impounded, further fees accrue, as in Gary’s case.

In 2018, Gary visited GLIDE’s Unconditional Legal Clinic and connected with an attorney from LCCR, who provided him with the legal assistance and representation he needed to file a claim against the City and the tow company.

The result was justice: The judge ruled that the city should not have towed and sold his vehicle considering his inability to comply with the 72-hour parking law.

Of the more than 200 clients served per year by the clinic, more than half are experiencing homelessness and the majority are people of color over the age of 50.

Bréyon says the most common issues she hears about are City confiscation of personal belongings and housing-related matters. For housed clients, she deals with everything from eviction prevention to landlord harassment and uninhabitable living conditions in apartments infested with rodents and mold, and lacking running water, heat and electricity.

“The work is intense because it is bearing witness to injustice,” admits Bréyon. “But the healing comes from knowing I can help people achieve what they need with the representation and dignity they deserve.”

Bréyon Austin, Clinic & Pro Bono Coordinator at LCCR

The Unconditional Legal Clinic, a program of GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice, is open on a drop-in basis, Monday and Thursday from 2:00 to 5:00 pm, at GLIDE.

With a new mobile testing and outreach van, GLIDE joins the OPT-IN effort to connect the most vulnerable to services

On a remote stretch of road just west on the Third Street artery that runs through San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, a young man is about to receive life-saving treatment.

The setting is anything but residential and yet full of makeshift housing—weathered campers, trailers and other vehicles, tents and lean-tos, all situated in an abandoned industrial landscape decorated over in graffiti and sectioned by torn chainlink fencing topped with razor-wire.

GLIDE’s Harm Reduction Community Outreach van makes a bright addition to these surroundings, the iconic orange heart on the front acting as a beacon of support to the neighborhood.

Frank Castro, GLIDE case manager and the van’s driver, has just pulled up in front of a slightly run-down mobile home with covered windows. Alix Strough, a nurse with the Department of Public Health’s Street Medicine unit, hops out of the GLIDE van and looks around. A moment later, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF) outreach team pulls up, too, just in front of GLIDE. Roy and Damon step out of SFAF’s white cargo van, which sports a random assortment of stickers promoting harm reduction and decrying the war on drugs.

Greetings exchanged, the crew scans the area. The mid-September day is cloudless and unusually hot, already into the low 90s, and at first no one seems to be around. “Normally there would be more foot traffic,” says Frank, “lots more.”

On site in the Bayview, September 2019 (photo by Robert Avila)

This is the team’s usual Friday stop. For the past several months, they have been spending several hours here each week, and been well received for the services and support they offer the homeless people living in the area. GLIDE and SFAF typically divide up the services to maximize their time here, with SFAF offering syringe access, Narcan training and distribution, and other harm reduction services while GLIDE’s specially equipped van allows the GLIDE team to concentrate on testing and linkages to care.

Frank, in cargo shorts and a black GLIDE tee, opens the van’s sliding door. He has decided to keep the engine on today in order to keep the air-conditioning running. Inside the van, GLIDE Health Systems Navigator Khaiya Croom is arranging equipment by the phlebotomy chair, preparing the space for testing.

The van is equipped to test for HIV, Hepatitis C and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). HIV and Hep C test results can be had on-site in a matter of minutes. With Alix onboard, the van can also offer rapid testing for syphilis, which alarmingly has been on the rise among women of childbearing years. As a nurse, Alix can treat STIs on-site as well.

Today, Frank has test results for someone he has been engaging with in this area. “When we see this person, I’ll let him know. At that point I’ll ask him if he wants to be in the OPT-IN program,” he explains, referring to the collaborative street outreach effort managed by the City’s Department of Public Health. “At that point, I’m his case manager.”

Alix decides to venture around the area and let people know there are harm reduction and testing services available. She and Damon load up a backpack with bottles of water and head down the nearby railroad track, respectfully pausing by the tents and camps scattered along either side to offer water (gratefully accepted on this scorching day) and let people know the vans have arrived with services for those who want them.

Across the street from the GLIDE van, beside a camper with a boat on a trailer, two men and a woman express their appreciation for the outreach, not only for the material support but for the judgment-free way in which it is offered.

“It’s amazing how looked down upon you are just because you live on the street,” the young woman tells Roy. “You guys all talk to us just like we’re anyone else.”

Back at the van, meanwhile, Frank is speaking with a young man with a neatly cropped beard who has ridden over on a bicycle. Alix has returned from the railroad track and joins the interaction. Afterward, she takes her laptop into a patch of shade as Frank relates the successful result: The young man has learned his status, and has agreed to sign up for treatment for Hep C.

Alix registers him with the Department of Public Health and will ultimately be able to administer his medication here on-site. Frank, as his case manager, will coordinate regular contact, offer emotional support, help with related challenges, and generally work to mitigate factors that could impede successful treatment.

In a matter of months, the young man can expect to receive treatment and eradicate the virus, all without ever having to enter a clinic or hospital.

“This is what our hope was,” says Frank, referring to the days of outreach before OPT-IN, “but this is the piece we needed. We needed a nurse.”

 

Project OPT-IN

OPT-IN arose to meet the challenge of reaching the most marginalized populations with successful health interventions and services for addressing the HIV and Hep C epidemics and other harms among the city’s homeless residents.

Funded by a five-year grant to the city’s Department of Public Health (DPH) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the program joins DPH’s Street Medicine unit with two social service agencies with extensive experience working with the populations concerned: San Francisco AIDS Foundation and GLIDE.

It was GLIDE’s Director of Harm Reduction Services, Paul Harkin, who offered the name, which stands for “outreach, prevention, treatment and integration.” But the name also points to a fundamental approach, grounded in the harm reduction principle that health interventions must be invited and not coerced.

“We see our approach as meeting trauma-informed criteria with cultural competency and humility,” says Paul.

“Our staff genuinely get what’s going on in these populations and are respected by them for the way that they treat everyone. Any approach to the most vulnerable populations has to come with that perspective. The notion of using coercion or threats is a failing approach. It’s totally counterproductive. It scares people away from care. It adds to their trauma and it actually makes them more vulnerable and more at risk.”

For Paul, OPT-IN is the logical extension of the outreach GLIDE has long done in the Tenderloin and South of Market, and more recently in monthly visits to encampments across the city. Now, with the van, that citywide relationship-building runs five days a week in places like the Bayview, the Western Addition, and Haight Ashbury. This consistency, showing up regularly and reliably to build trust, is crucial.

“One of GLIDE’s strengths is our presence on the streets,” he explains. “That’s how you build up cred. You get to know people. We’ve only added to that with OPT-IN, by adding more outreaches, and increasing that engagement.”

OPT-IN Outreach Worker Daniela Wotke and Health Systems Navigator Khaiya Croom. (photo by Alain McLaughlin)

Going where the need is

On the way back to GLIDE, Frank confers with Khaiya and Alix about an idea he has for maximizing floor space in the van to further improve the care they provide. Alix, in turn, updates Frank on the status of a pregnant young woman they know who had been living in a small RV. She’s at San Francisco General now, says Alix, and doing well.

The day invariably includes many such conversations, as well as the sharing of information with the public, distribution of harm reduction supplies, and other social interactions that increase trust, knowledge, solidarity and options between the outreach team and the people they serve. The hard stats for the afternoon: two people were tested, one person learned their health status, and one person was connected to treatment.

Treatment is a process, however. Increasing access for people on the margins to the range of available services, from clinics to pharmacies, is also a daily effort.

“That’s the other part of this job,” says Frank, “going to service providers, talking to the staff, letting them know the feedback I’ve gotten and seeing how receptive they are to a conversation about how we can make this situation better for our clients—how we can widen the margins for getting services.”

“We have a lot of resources in this city,” he says. “Our job here is being the grout between the tiles.”

Monday the van will be at another populated area in the Bayview, but each weekday the team makes a different regular stop across the city. These stops change only as populations move around. As that happens, the OPT-IN team adjusts its schedule accordingly.

That’s the mission, as Frank explains. “Paul told me: Go wherever our people are.”

 

Edna Webster Coleman’s remarkable life in the struggle for social justice

GLIDE’s Annual Fund manager Hallie Brignall spoke recently with Edna Webster, a longtime GLIDE community member and Bay Area educator and activist who has designated a portion of her estate for GLIDE and its work on behalf of the community. In the following account, Hallie offers a brief overview of Edna’s remarkable and very busy life, including her organizing with Rev. Cecil Williams and GLIDE as an extension of the civil rights efforts she pursued in the South. We are deeply grateful for Edna’s lifetime of commitment to justice and compassion for others, and we thank her for letting us share her inspiring story.

Edna Webster grew up in the projects of New Orleans. After graduating high school, she worked for a short while in her cousin’s restaurant and as a babysitter. Feeling unsatisfied, she yearned to do more. Unsure of what new direction to take, she walked down to the Custom House on Canal Street and exclaimed, “I think I want to join the Army.” She passed the test and found herself stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, near St. Louis, Missouri, where she exceled, eventually making Drill Sargent.

During her time in the army, Edna met her husband and earned enough money to pay for college. She enrolled in social studies and history at an historically black college, Southern University, in New Orleans. This led her to teaching in local schools, one of which was the William Frantz Elementary School, where Ruby Bridges integrated.

Beginning in the 1960s, while still in New Orleans, Edna became active in the Civil Rights Movement. She landed in jail three times due to protest actions for integration. At a young age, she and a group of friends participated in lunch-counter protests at Woolworth’s. They’d take their books down to do their homework, a very wholesome and innocent activity, but found themselves forcefully asked to move. They refused. Edna recalls what happened next.

“The server called us the ‘N’ word and threw lemon meringue pie at us before calling the police, who carted us off to jail.” The next day they were bailed out by the Congress of Racial Equality [CORE] and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC]. That same day, they went back out on the street to protest for integration at a university in Baton Rouge. The governor shut down the school and the National Guard descended on the campus. The police used canines and water hoses on the protestors before taking them back to jail. Again, they were bailed out by various activist groups.

Edna poses with a large portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during Black History month.

Edna also worked on voter education. She taught older people how to vote at a church located in Uptown, New Orleans. Voting was next to impossible for African Americans in her community and nationwide. “They’d ask us all kinds of crazy questions like, ‘How many jelly beans are in that jar,’ or they’d say, ‘Uh, well, you can’t vote because you haven’t been in your home for six months to a year.’”

At one voting location, she was rifling through her large purse for a pen when someone shouted, “She’s got a gun!” to which she replied, “What gun? What are you talking about?” Security came and searched her bag, but there was nothing there. They resorted to telling her, “Well, you can’t come today!” Edna points out that we’re seeing these types of tricks and intimidation again today when African American try to vote.

During this turbulent time, Edna remembers meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was a guest speaker at the Dr. Rev. Davis’s church in New Orleans. “He was a dynamite speaker and was very impressive, Edna remembers. “He spoke about continuing the fight against injustice. We were all students in our early 20s who were on the frontline, fighting for the cause.”

Edna’s family began putting down roots in San Francisco in the 1940s, when her grandparents and her aunt came out for jobs at the Hunter’s Point and Kaiser shipyards. Her family owned a home in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood and were doing well. After her father passed away in 1967, Edna and her mother moved to San Francisco. She recalls thinking, “Boy, I’m going to California.”

After she arrived, she found herself protesting again. “When is this going to stop? I thought I was coming to freedom and that it would be different out here. There were protests against the Vietnam War and protests at San Francisco State University [to create Ethnic Studies programs].” The SFSU Student Strike was especially violent. The president of SFSU, S. I. Hayakawa, called in the police to restore control. “The people got beaten up brutally by mounted police swinging their billy clubs.”

“And many jobs in San Francisco weren’t open to black people, not until the 1970s. I remember protesting MUNI for not hiring black drivers.”

As Edna found herself getting involved in local activism, one name came up repeatedly: Cecil Williams.

“When I got here, that’s when I heard a lot about Cecil because he was very active,” recalls Edna. “He led a lot of protests, would speak at a lot of different places and had a lot of good programs for the people. He got people to march against the Vietnam War.”

At one event, she remembers Cecil leading people to the Bill Graham Civic Center, where GLIDE’s Ensemble performed.

“When they wanted to close down the Charles Drew School in Bayview [Hunter’s Point],” she further recalls, “he got a group of his members and they came out there to protest.” The protests were successful, and the school is there to this day.

Edna not only attended Cecil’s protests, she also volunteered during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Sometimes, she would even bring her students and their parents. She also attended Celebration. GLIDE was Edna’s first church when she came out to California. “I went to the church and I really enjoyed the services. The choir, mingling with the people—everyone is very friendly.”

Edna was equally ambitious about her education and career. While serving in the Presidio military reserves and working at Head Start, she was also busy earning her California credentials as a teaching and reading specialist along with a master’s degree. She then embarked on a 50-year career in the San Francisco public school system.

Edna teaches 5th graders in San Francisco public schools.

Eventually, Edna decided that she wanted to visit the places she’d been teaching about. As a result, she has traveled all over the United States and to several countries. She fondly remembers visiting Nubian villages in Ethiopia; Archbishop Tutu’s church in South Africa; Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell on Robben Island; Gorée Island in Senegal, which was a major slave-trading location; the village of Juffure in Gambia, featured in Alex Haley’s famous novel Roots, where she met an ancestor of Kunte Kinte named Binte Kunte; a Malawi village in South Africa, where she volunteered as an English teacher; W.E.B. Du Bois’s burial site in Ghana; and Cuba to tour their public-school system.

Edna on the Island of Gorée in Senegal, which was one of the key stopovers in the slave trade since the 15th Century. It is now a world heritage site and pilgrimage destination for the African diaspora.

In the early 1980s, the San Francisco Unified School District laid off 500 teachers. Edna was one of the first teachers to be let go. She went down to the Federal building on Golden Gate Avenue and filled out an application to be an Educational Specialist. She was hired as the director of a school at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. Eventually, San Francisco Unified rehired most of the teachers and she returned to San Francisco.

In 2002, Edna retired—sort of. Over the following decade or more, she worked for the San Francisco Unified School District’s after-school program; at City College, in their GED program; and as a consultant for new teachers. As you might imagine, Edna has received many awards for her stellar career, including “Teacher of the Year” and “Unsung Hero.” She continues to volunteer in after-school programs in Richmond to help kids excel.

Edna surrounded by her 5th grade students from Commodore Sloat School.

Edna admires the variety of GLIDE’s programs helping homeless individuals and low-income families—programs offering housing assistance, support for women who have survived abuse, and for children in need of daycare and after-school programming. “Cecil did a lot to help the community,” says Edna. “That’s what you really have to look at. Somebody that’s doing something positive.”

In 2018, Edna committed to making a legacy gift to GLIDE in her estate plans.

“You never know where you’re going to need,” she explains. “I got help when I needed it, and I’m in a position now to give back. You give back because you want to see these young kids make it.”

In addition to her generous bequest, Edna offers future generations an inspiring example of a life lived in the service of social justice, education and solidarity with others. And for the younger generations of today, both activists and those who haven’t joined them yet, Edna has this message:

“People ought to protest again, just like in the ’60s. They should keep it going. If you go to sleep on this and are passive, what’s going to happen? They are going to take away what you have gained. That’s the way it goes. We had to fight to get what we got. Young people are going to have to get out and keep it going. They need to keep things moving and not give up.”

 

Cape of Good Hope, Capetown, South Africa.

GLIDE Harm Reduction Services director Paul Harkin demystifies fentanyl and shares the known solutions to the opioid crisis

Friday, August 30, is Overdose Awareness Day, dedicated to remembering lives lost and lives saved in the opioid crisis, as well as to informing the public about humane and evidence-based ways to mitigate the risks and fatalities associated with drug use. Here in the TL, we’ll be gathering from 1:00 to 3:00 pm at the Tenderloin National Forest (511 Ellis Street) to honor the lives lost, as well as to celebrate the power of community—by sharing information, Narcan trainings, our stories, and good food and music. This day and everyday, it’s important to remember that there are things we can all do to reduce risks and harms in our community. The first step is educating ourselves on the facts about drugs and drug use, including the known health interventions out there. Current media attention on fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid helping to fuel overdoses in the Bay Area and across the country, is too often inclined to focus on the sensational or to even trade in misinformation. We know that sensationalistic stories only make matters worse. So to learn more about fentanyl and the proven health interventions that can reduce the risks it presents, we spoke with Paul Harkin, director of GLIDE’s HIV/Hep C and Harm Reduction Services. The following conversation has been shortened and lightly edited for clarity.

Can you give us some context for the current focus on fentanyl?

Paul Harkin: I came to San Francisco in 2000 to work at the Tenderloin AIDS Resource Center. My first week at work I saw people who were using fentanyl. Even back then, there were people for whom that was their drug of choice, because it’s fast-acting and it doesn’t last as long. There was not the same hysteria around it then. I just saw it as another opioid among the many opioids that are available to people, whether it’s a pharmaceutical or street drug.

About three years ago, we saw a real uptick in fentanyl in the drug supply in San Francisco. One of the first things we saw was Xanax pills that were counterfeit and had fentanyl. So, you’ve got people that are taking a pill that they thought was a benzodiazepine and it’s full of fentanyl, and they died, or they overdosed.

It was very perplexing. You’re wondering, who would do that? We don’t know if some of this is cross-contamination. There’s been fentanyl traces in a lot of different substances.

And we’re still seeing a lot of opioid users dying from fentanyl overdosing because it’s very strong and the onset is so quick. If I were doing heroin, an overdose is probably about 30 minutes from the shot to the point where I have respiratory failure. There’s quite a decent window there to save me, if there’s anybody around. With fentanyl, that respiratory failure can happen within five minutes.

What’s the approach you and GLIDE take to this situation?

[Fentanyl] has been here for a long time. It’s given to pregnant mothers in maternity wards during childbirth. Any approach that’s hysterical is counterproductive. We just need to look at it rationally: It’s an opioid. It’s a strong opioid. It’s a fast-acting opioid. People have used it for years and not come to harm. Other people have used it once and died. Like with a lot of drugs. We can’t be shaming, stigmatizing, sensationalizing. We just have to educate people that overdoses are reversible. No matter how much somebody takes or how quickly they go into an overdose, if somebody there has Narcan they’re going to be able to reverse that overdose. That means we need to have Narcan distribution.

But we also have to create a climate where people are not using alone, because then nobody can reverse your overdose. It’s like having a designated driver, having somebody with you when you get high. For some folks that’s a challenge because they don’t want to be outed—they might be using drugs secretly. That’s an ongoing community intervention, trying to de-stigmatize use so that people can feel safe to have somebody with them.

Can you elaborate on the life-threatening consequences associated with stigma?

When we look at stigma, whether it’s drug use or sexual behaviors, it’s always been counterproductive. It makes people want to keep secrets; it pushes people further away. By de-stigmatizing substances and substance use you make it easier for someone to talk about it. You can check in with them. “Hey, I’ve noticed you’re getting high a lot more lately. What’s going on? Is everything OK?” You can have that conversation. That’s what we have to get to.

It’s just like with gay men and HIV. We saw that stigma helped promote the infection, because people were feeling unable to discuss their status or getting tested—there was shame, there was stigma, there was criminalization. All of these things are counterproductive. We need to move away from that model. People need the facts, told in a calm and composed way. And then we work with them, based on the facts, on how to reduce the harms.

What are the known health interventions that can reduce or eliminate the threat of overdose deaths?

When we talk about the shocking uptick in opioid overdoses, we should also be talking about the known solutions.

Number one is having overdose prevention available to you through Narcan. If everyone who used had somebody sitting there with Narcan there would be no more overdoses.

Another intervention would be having safe consumption sites where people are medically supervised, or they’re supervised by community members trained in overdose prevention. We have these all over the world. There’s never been a single overdose death in any of them.

Another intervention that we use at GLIDE is giving people fentanyl test strips. It’s not sufficiently adequate because it’s just saying, yes, there is fentanyl in this drug. It’s not telling you the degree of contamination, the percentage of the drug that is fentanyl. However, if you bought ecstasy and it tested positive for fentanyl then that’s a big deal. Now, if you’re buying heroin and it tested positive for fentanyl, that’s also a big deal but it’s still in the same class of drug. So maybe you take less of it. You do a test shot, or you smoke a bit. There are different tried and tested methods that reduce the possibility of overdose.

With those test strips, another good thing about them is that they help us generate conversations about overdose and make sure that people are very aware of how strong fentanyl is and the uptick in the incidences of overdoses, including fatal overdoses.

But, to me, we’re not going to get beyond the opioid deaths until we get to safe consumption sites. There’s really no downside, except for people who see it as a moral failing and they’re morally outraged. It’s coming from an ill-informed position. Let’s talk to drug users, and let’s talk to people who work with drug users and have expertise. You’ll see that the evidence shows that this is a highly efficacious intervention.

It’s like people who say our thoughts and prayers are with you after mass shootings, but they don’t want to touch gun legislation—saying you’re outraged at the opioid crisis and all these deaths, but you won’t implement evidence-based solutions. It’s really time for the people who work with this population, the medical experts, to say we need to do these interventions. The time has come.

Paul Harkin (above, second from left) is the director of GLIDE’s HIV/Hep C and Harm Reduction Services.

A look at what our community’s kids and parents can count on.

Summertime is almost here—a time when children suddenly have seemingly endless hours of free time. But what do the working parents of low-income families do about childcare once school is let out?

It’s no secret that the cost of childcare in San Francisco, along with the cost of living as a whole, has skyrocketed. According to a study by The Insight Center for Community Economic Development, the median cost of childcare for preschool-age kids rose 40% in the Bay Area between 2014 and 2018, from about $1,000 a month to more than $1,500. This cost can prove prohibitively expensive for many parents, even those working multiple jobs and/or taking shifts at odd hours to do their best for their families.

FYCC Field Day, Summer 2016. Photo credit: Alain McLaughlin.

Many parents are simply moving out of the city. In fact, San Francisco has the lowest percentage of people under 13 of any major city in the nation.

The inequities and acute challenges faced by low-income parents, including during the summer months when children are no longer in school, are why GLIDE’s Janice Mirikitani Family, Youth and Childcare Center (FYCC) exists.

“We go where parents are most likely not going to have the means to go… Not everybody has a car and can drive to Marin.” —Juan

In anticipation of summer break, we spoke with Juan and Selina, two of GLIDE’s wonderful teachers, about FYCC’s thriving Afterschool and Summer Program.

“In the summer, we’re here with the kids much longer,” explains Juan, lead teacher for the second-graders. “We go from spending three hours a day with them to nearly nine hours.”

While the hours may be long, Juan and Selina make it clear that the summer program is fun and rewarding for both the children and themselves.

We go on field trips every Tuesday and Thursday,” says Juan. “We do hikes, we go swimming, do art… We’re going to dissect an owl’s pellet, which,” he admits, “is a little gross, but the kids are going to think it’s cool!”

“We also have tons of [guest instructors] who come in and do activities with them like music and dancing,” adds Selina, the lead kindergarten teacher, who has been with FYCC for over a decade. “I believe there is a ‘bubble lady’ coming in, too. She puts the kids inside bubbles!”

FYCC Field Day, Summer 2016. Photo credit: Alain McLaughlin.

One of the best things about FYCC Summer Camp, according to Juan and Selina, is that many of the children get to experience certain joyful and eye-opening activities for the first time in their lives, like flying a kite, or visiting the Marin Headlands.

“We go where parents are most likely not going to have the means to go,” explains Juan. “Not everybody has a car and can drive to Marin.”

Selina adds that they try to show the kids the diversity of Bay Area neighborhoods and natural parks.

“The kids get to do a private tour of Oracle ball park,” she notes. “And, the older kids get to go camping through CYO [Catholic Youth Organization]. It’s for children from eight to 15-years-old. It’s for a whole week, and it’s entirely free to the families here, including the food.”

FYCC instructors Juan Ruiz and Selina Ng pose in front of a mural that Juan painted on his classroom wall.

Of course, when working with children, there is never a shortage of hilarious stories. Selina recalls one summer a couple years ago when FYCC teachers took the kids day-camping in the Presidio.

“All the camping supplies are supposed to be provided, stored in a locker for you on-site. It turned out that somebody took the logs we’d planned to use to make the fire. When we finally found some, none of us teachers could figure out how to build the fire!” Selina recalls, laughing.

“The kids were just like, what is going on? We had supplies to make hot dogs and s’mores… The kids were really good about it. They had a really positive attitude, but it was so funny. I was like, well, we grew up in the city, I never went camping! Luckily, we found a high-school teacher right across from us at the campsite, so they helped us build the fire,” she says.

“City people tryin’ to camp. That’s what happens,” Juan laughs.

A GLIDE FYCC teacher leads a group of children on a field trip.

Juan and Selina express gratitude for the support and enthusiasm the program receives from organizations and institutions that reduce or waive fees to make field trips possible, and to individual San Franciscans who generously donate to the program.

“Afterschool programs that are income-based are great because a lot of families here don’t have the means to keep their kids elsewhere,” says Juan. “And you definitely don’t want to have your kid at home alone, or alone in the city. The fact that we can provide care, with a kick of education along with it, is great.”

Especially given what’s going on in the political landscape, I think it’s very important that we keep cultivating equality, social justice and acceptance of cultures other than our own. — Selina

Selina, who is a mother herself, adds that San Francisco now has the most expensive childcare in the nation.

“Especially when you remember that, in the Bay Area, a family of four making $110,000 is considered low-income, and then you factor in how much our FYCC parents make, which is way, way less than that,” she notes. “I think that programs like this are an asset and that we need more of them.”

“I want my child to be with other kids and do things that they don’t get to do during the school day,” she continues, “When they come to FYCC, there are electives! There’s PE, cooking, art, music—things that are not necessarily offered at school anymore. It’s also a safe place and, as a parent, knowing where your child is after school gives you peace of mind. Childcare should be a right; it shouldn’t be a privilege.”

FYCC Field Day, Summer 2016. Photo credit: Alain McLaughlin.

Not only are the families FYCC serves low-income, many of them are also immigrants and face challenging linguistic and cultural barriers. During the academic year, FYCC teachers offer assistance with homework to the kids, as many of their parents do not read or write English. Teachers prioritize instilling an appreciation and love of diversity in their classes, and these values of acceptance and inclusion are reiterated during the summer program.

“We introduce a lot of kids for the first time to another part of the world,” says Juan.

“Especially given what’s going on in the political landscape, I think it’s very important that we keep cultivating equality, social justice and acceptance of cultures other than our own,” says Selina. “FYCC [is] a safe place for everybody.”

The FYCC summer program begins on June 10 and lasts until August 9. For more information about GLIDE’s Family, Youth and Childcare Center, visit FYCC’s page on GLIDE’s website.

 

This year, the GLIDE Center for Social Justice (CSJ) along with our community partners at Skywatchers have been proud to create a new Leadership Academy with residents of the Tenderloin.

Skywatchers is an arts-based ensemble that has been working in the Tenderloin for eight years with SRO residents, centering performance-based and multi-disciplinary art and stories to highlight and address the concerns and needs of its participants. The Leadership Academy builds on Skywatchers’ and GLIDE’s mutual belief in art and story-telling as a powerful basis of community organizing.

“It’s using art as a way to get in touch with themselves and tell their stories,” GLIDE Advocacy Manager Ben Lintschinger explains.

“We’re showing a group of people how to do that with each other, so that folks can feel safe with each other and talk about their lives and what is important to them and also listen in a way that is nourishing and powerful. That creates the community to do the kind of work we need in order to make systemic change.”

I feel like I’m helping to heal, and I’m being healed at the same time, in this process with Skywatchers. — Shakiri

GLIDE CSJ staff co-designed the Academy’s curriculum along with Skywatchers founder Anne Bluethenthal and local artist and Skywatchers facilitator Shakiri.

“For me, prior to partnering with GLIDE, it seemed like an important piece of work both for raising the caliber of the art we were creating but also raising the discourse we were having in our circles,” says Anne.

“There was a need to contextualize our participants’ stories in a more social, political, historical and cultural frame. Several years ago, I started to write a curriculum for leadership training that would provide a venue in which we were not just making art but specifically in a process of learning together and thinking about our stories in a systemic way.”

Anne says she hopes that their training will help each cohort develop the skills necessary to help one another navigate systems that can often be difficult to navigate alone, and to become advocates for each other and for their immediate communities.

Reggie graduates from the inaugural class of the GLIDE/Skywatchers Leadership Academy. Shakiri, Lauren Small and Anne Bluethenthal present the graduates with flowers, certificates of completion and hugs.

GLIDE and Skywatchers have already successfully run their first 16-week course, and graduated 10 people, most of whom are continuing to meet weekly to share their work and collaborate. The second cohort is currently in session.

Shakiri, who has worked with Skywatchers for the past three years, is a choreographer, writer and dancer, and greatly values the work being done through the Leadership Academy.

“As an artist, I feel that I’m doing something worthwhile and that’s important to me,” she says. “I feel like I’m helping to heal, and I’m being healed at the same time, in this process with Skywatchers.”

“The participants are moving on from the Leadership Academy to creating and participating—dealing with the issues that they are interested in,” Shakiri explains. “They all identified something they were passionate about and then were asked, What do you want to do about this passion? Then they had to figure out what that was, and they’re working on that now. I’m so happy and proud of them.”

Participants’ “passion projects” address a range of pressing issues faced by residents of the Tenderloin, from overcoming domestic violence, to homelessness and public health, including mental health and dietary practices.

I would like to teach people how to cook healthier meals in SROs using things like crockpots, hotpots and electric skillets. — Tony Page

Tony Page is an active Tenderloin resident who regularly eats at GLIDE in the Daily Free Meals program dining room, otherwise known as Mo’s Kitchen. He is now both a performer with Skywatchers and a graduate of the first session of the Leadership Academy. Tony identified his passion as teaching people how to eat healthier in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood notoriously known as a food desert within San Francisco.

“I am very, very passionate about cooking,” says Tony. “One of the changes I would like to see is access to healthier foods in stores, and more vegetables and fruits available in this neighborhood. I would also like to see our community take advantage of resources like food banks, community gardens, farmers markets and co-ops,” he continues.

Both Tony and his fellow Academy member Reggie believe that too many Tenderloin residents rely on corner convenience stores as their primary source of groceries in part because many people do not have a full kitchen in which to prepare fresh meals.

“These foods [in convenience stores] are foods that we really shouldn’t be eating. Reggie is a diabetic and I was born with heart disease, so food is a big deal for us. I would like to teach people how to cook healthier meals in SROs using things like crockpots, hotpots and electric skillets,” Tony explains.

In addition to their passion projects, enrollees did a lot of collective activism around housing, since everybody in the group identified affordable housing as a top concern.

“They’ve done marches to get people to vote, media interviews and community events,” relates Ben. “You need to have connection, be able to listen to and learn from each other, and feel comfortable being authentic with each other in order to do good community-based work.”

Tony Page and Shakiri celebrate his completion of the inaugural session of the GLIDE/Skywatchers Leadership Academy.

Skywatchers and GLIDE are excited about the future of the Leadership Academy, and similar programs in the Tenderloin, for what its graduates can foster in the neighborhood.

“My hope is that we keep finding more and more creative and professional development opportunities for the folks who are participating,” says Anne, “and for everybody who is struggling with housing and poverty and a lack of enfranchisement in this culture.”

“There are many leadership programs in the Tenderloin,” she continues, “a lot of great partner agencies like Hospitality House, the Coalition on Homelessness and Faithful Fools, who are offering different kinds of learning opportunities. My dream is that we connect all of these programs and have a kind of Tenderloin University!”

Stay tuned for more news about the Leadership Academy and its second cohort. In the meantime, to see Skywatchers in action, check out their 8th annual Festival, At the Table: Visions, beginning on Friday, May 17 and running until Sunday, May 19. All performances are free.

In keeping with our values of radical inclusivity and acceptance, GLIDE has a long-standing policy of welcoming all people, as well as their animals, through our doors. On any given day at GLIDE, you will see dogs in backpacks, strollers, baby slings, tote bags and on leashes. In celebration of the unconditional love that animals and humans provide one another, here is a look at some of the dogs and their humans that have made an impact on us over the years.

Richard and Kane.

“All the GLIDE staff are wonderful to me and Kane. Now I have a real apartment. I save $300 a month to pay my rent. This has given me back my dignity. GLIDE allows me to be an individual and Kane is recognized as an individual, not just a dog.”

Bailey and Marley.

The sweeps are what originally caught my eye about GLIDE Harm Reduction, the fact that you can go out and collect all the needles in the street. I live about three blocks away, I take my dog on walks around here and it’s dirty! I have to make sure my dog’s not stepping on dirty needles! It’s a really awesome program and as soon as I started helping with the sweeps I wanted to do more.

Marley was five weeks old when I got him. It was the night of a blood moon and I was sleeping in the woods in Oregon at the time. When I brought him to my camp, we stayed up together and howled at the blood moon.

For a long time I was very nomadic. This is the first time I’ve lived indoors in the last six years. Before that I was sleeping outside under the stars. But sleeping in the city, in doorways, is really scary, and he’s always protected me. I’ve been in the weirdest situations while hitchhiking by myself, and he’s got my back.

Bill, GLIDE Harm Reduction Syringe Access Outreach Coordinator, and Rosie.

As far as the people we serve, people experiencing homelessness or struggling with chaotic substance use, a dog can take them to a grounding, centering place. I think also give them a sense of meaning, purpose and connection, especially if they’re lacking a healthy social support network with humans. Dogs will at least give them some love in their life, and we know that everyone does better with a little love in their life!

Rosie helps me to be grounded and centered, more so than I would be without her. If I get frustrated or angry, I look at her and everything melts away. How can I be pissed off when I’m looking at that little face? She contributes to this whole office area being a better place!

John and Odin

I used to not be homeless and I lived on the East Coast and hiked the Appalachian Trail a lot. One fateful night six years ago, me and a buddy are out camping and we stopped for the night. We hear whining and small barking! I’m like, whatever, somebody camped near us. We’re chilling, we’re hanging out, we’re talking, and it gets closer! We ignore it for a good 10, 20 minutes. Finally it drives me nuts to the point where I open up the tent and I look out and about five feet away he’s sitting there staring me in the eye going, “Dude!”

We look around, there’s no campfire, there’s no lights, I hollered for people to see if anybody had lost their dog. I pulled him into the tent, he had no collar or tags, no nothing. As soon as he got into the tent, he ducked into my sleeping bag, curled up, and passed out! Done! I thought, all right, well I guess you’re sleepin’ here tonight!

I can’t sleep without him now. He keeps me calm, he keeps me going. Eventually my girl and I are going to end up getting some land in Arizona and starting a farm. The whole premise behind it is Odin and our other dog.


Amber or Syringe Access Services and Daydream.

Daydream has been my dog for a little over seven years. She’s 11. She was my partner’s and when he passed away, I got her. She has absolutely saved my life. Without her, I don’t think I would be on this plane anymore. That was one of the hardest times of my life.

We pretty quickly ended up on the streets and she helped to keep me sane. She would keep me warm at night, and safe from all sorts of external issues like sexual assault, robbery… I didn’t start having seizures until after I got her. She’d been my partner’s seizure alert dog. I had no idea what was going on the first time, and she knew exactly what to do and took care of me. After that, she became able to let me know before I would get them, and I got on medication. Thankfully I don’t get them very often anymore, but I’m able to recognize what that feels like when they’re coming on. Without her, I don’t know how far along I’d be on that.

Marvin K. White, Vashti and Liberation

In honor of Women’s History Month, GLIDE’s own Interim Minister of Celebration Marvin K. White shares his gifts as a poet and theologian in a piece entitled “Vashti”. The poem and accompanying interview were originally published in the GLIDE Church eNews, Congregation Connect.

Vashti

I was with the other women
In the woman’s place
In the palace
And it’s only
The letter “A”
That separates place
From palace.

I was with the other women
When he called.
I had been up cooking all night
And had just wiped
The last of the semolina
Off my forehead
And we were finally ready to eat

When he called
We were in our one hundred
And eighty-seventh day of celebrating
One hundred and eighty-seven times
I was called up,
Pageanted for him
And the visiting priests, provinces, and princes.
He had been feasting for the last six days
Without calling.
I waited six.
I was queen.
He told me that.
I was clear.
Or tried to convince myself to be.
I was picked
Like the prized pie at the carnival
Because I was the fairest.

When he called
He never thought
I would refuse him anything.
I was lucky you know
And yes
I heard him calling
Cuz I hear everything.
I am a woman.
Ears trained to ground and sky.
I hear the women
Like myself
Breaking
Like the bread we ate that day.
Women
Who were picked over
For some beauty standard
That had nothing to do with us.

I wasn’t leaving this party.
It felt right.
And yes
I heard him calling
But I also heard God’s warning breath
Whisper my ear
With my mother’s fear,
“Say no girl,
say no.”

So, when he called
It was the seventh day.
He had been drinking.
His heart was merry with wine.
He was drunk.
And ordered,
because that’s what you can do
when you make someone a queen,
He ordered me
To him
In the crown royal,
Now,
He was ready to show me off.
And
I
Said
“No!”
Because I a woman
And I am moved
Like the women I am with
And the women I come from
Are moved.
And there is a place
And it’s only the letter “A”
That separates place from palace
In my belly now.
Fuller than the feast
Whose grease
Lingers on my fingers.
There is a place left
From gathering with my like,
Telling me what to say,
And I am finally ready to hear
This word
This bird
Flying out of my mouth
Turned song.
And I am sure
Other queens have heard it.
Put their tongues
To the roof of their mouths
And tasted it.
My sisters
Esther
Ma’a’cha
Bathsheba
Jezebel
Sheba
Candace.
We who have all said “No!”
And have not known
And known at the same time
Why.
“No!”
For our daughters,
The next in our broken royal lines.
“No!”
For their voices strong and spirit led.
“No!”
We can say “Mother God” and “Father God.”
Can think
That in the company of women
Quiet wars can be raged.
Battles birthing women and
Women birthing battles,
Who don’t forget their kindred
Or their people.
When he called
There was new breath in mine
Pushing this defiance
Out of my chest.

Like life
Collapsing in on itself.
Like rock caught in the craw of my throat
Coughed up.
Like tear and snot braced for pain.
Like we are getting ready
To sing
Or preach
Or pray
For the first time.

Like I said,
When he called
I had been up cooking
All night
And had just wiped
The last of the semolina
Off my forehead,
And we
Were
Finally
Ready
To
Eat.

How did this poem begin for you?

I really believe in locating stories in the Bible through a “Hermeneutics of Suspicion.” In theology, it’s a style of interpretation that bypasses the patriarchal and class readings of biblical stories, so that less-visible and “differently beautiful and powerful” stories can emerge. That’s how I found Vashti. Obfuscated by men, Vashti’s and other marginalized figures’ stories risk being untold. I couldn’t let that happen. I could hear her faint voice, still calling out, these many years later. I have learned to listen and be led by the voice of women all of my life.

What prompted you to write from the perspective of a woman in the Bible? 

I always try to remember when I am writing in the voice of women, that the aim is to be spoken through by women and not to speak for women. I was fortunate enough to have been “mama’s/grandmama’s boy” when I was growing up. My therapist would say that I was a “spousified child”. You know, “Mama’s little man.” But it gave me an insight and entry into “women’s ways.” I hold those intimacies close still. As an adult, I was also the primary caregiver for my mother and grandmother, who both, at different times in my life, lived and died with Alzheimer’s. I was a writer watching their stories disappear. I began having conversations with them by whatever relative’s name they called me. I learned their ways. And learned to be a person who dispensed wisdom. If I have any insight and compassion into women’s experiences and female bonds, it is because they speak through me.

From a feminist, womanist and liberation theological standpoint, Vashti displayed agency and self-valuation.

Can you please talk a bit about the context of Vashti in the Book of Esther? 

Vashti was the queen to King Xerxes, who had a habit of getting drunk and sending for his queen to show her off to his visitors. In one of these instances, Vashti said, “No.” and refused to come. Xerxes’ dudes got in his ear and convinced him that Vashti had dissed him in front of his homies and he was going to have to do something to show who was in charge. I’m being the worst exegete in the world right now! Xerxes declares that all wives shall obey their husbands.

From a feminist, womanist and liberation theological standpoint, Vashti displayed agency and self-valuation. She chose women over men. She made choices that were uncommon in a bible that casts men as the heroes. Her story is now sited as one of resistance, risk and threat to the patriarchy. And it’s not because she was “against” men, but simply and more powerfully, “for” women. There are still other women, and other marginalized voices, hidden behind men in the bible or in bondage by the bible’s storytellers. It is my job as a theologian to free them.

Lisa Pelletier-Ross is a beloved staff member at GLIDE, serving as a trusted Community Safety Team Shift Lead. She, along with several other members of Community Safety and the Meals Program, have been collaborating with our Adult Education Specialist Stephanie McNally to record and share their experiences on the front lines of GLIDE’s work in the community. We are grateful to Lisa for providing the first post of Women’s History Month, and demonstrating the strength, patience and compassion required from the staff at GLIDE who work directly with our program participants.

Lisa (far right) with her colleagues Tanya, Ray and Iris.

Working at Glide has given me the opportunity to meet and befriend lots of people. Being homeless once myself, this is what I know and have learned: Homeless people are people too, but most of the time they are treated as not. They get treated badly all day long. Most of them just want to be treated like a normal human being, for someone to just lend an ear and listen to them. They just want to be heard, but most people don’t have the time or patience to do so.

I witness this desire to be heard with the clients we serve every day at GLIDE. When a client comes to me, whether they want to complain about something or  just say hello and have a friendly conversation, I lend them my ear.

Lisa with her Community Safety Team colleague, Dereik.

One Sunday, a senior citizen came in and told me he didn’t want to live anymore. He was tired. I knew what he meant about being tired, living in the vicious circle.  So I took him into Freedom Hall and asked if he wanted to talk about it. I just let him speak. He told me he wanted to end his life by throwing himself in front of a bus. I sat there with him for a while, and even had someone go and get a pastor for me so I had some support in this situation. I let the man know that we love him and that we would be sad if we didn’t see him around here anymore. The man cried and was still feeling down. I sat there with him for a while and listened to him share how he felt. When they came to take him to the hospital, the man gave me a hug and told me, “Thank you. I love you for listening to me.” That made me feel very grateful and thankful that I was able to change that man’s decision of wanting to take his life.

GLIDE staff celebrating a successful 2018 Grocery Bag Giveaway in December.

Most people just want someone to listen, and if I can do that for them and it makes them happy, then that makes me feel good inside, to give an act of kindness. If I can make another person happy or make their day, then I feel good about myself for doing so. If you lend an ear, that means more to the person you are listening to than, let’s say, buying them a hamburger. They will remember it because listening is a heartfelt act of caring. So if you can find it in your heart, give an act of kindness, show some love, and give an ear.

It’s no secret that at GLIDE, we believe in love. We believe in radical, unstoppable, unconditional love. We also know that love manifests in as many ways as there are people in our community—people like Elena and Zach, two GLIDE interns who are helping to link hard-to-reach members of the community to harm reduction and HIV/Hep C services.

Zach and Elena are much loved members of the Tenderloin’s harm reduction community.


GLIDE Harm Reduction Peer Program: An entryway to connection, education and community

Recently, GLIDE’s Harm Reduction team initiated its first-ever Peer Program, managed by Outreach Coordinator Bill Buehlman. The purpose of the fledgling program is to provide internship opportunities to people who have struggled with substance use themselves, so that they can not only learn about harm reduction and direct service but, in turn, reach out to others in the community who are otherwise not receiving services—either because they get overlooked by other programs or they tend to distrust traditional service providers.

“We’re trying to engage people with lived experiences,” explains Bill, “active participants who want to do any level of service work.”

Bill serves as both a trainer and a mentor to participants in the Peer Program, who are usually people who currently use or have formerly used GLIDE’s harm reduction services.

“The people who are difficult to reach are the people we most want—especially with regard to Hep C testing, education and treatment. Seven out of 10 injection drug users in this city will test positive for Hep C antibodies. We are good at outreach, but that doesn’t mean we can reach everybody. That is part of what this program is about—using people within the community to navigate in there and help link folks to services.”

Another member of the Peer Program, Bill Buehlman, Elena and Zach pose together after a Friday afternoon harm reduction outreach.

 

Elena and Zach arrived in San Francisco last year after many years of travel, and were immediately drawn to GLIDE’s Harm Reduction Program.

“With Zach and Elena,” reflects Bill, “they really want to be in this world of harm reduction.”

Harm reduction principles are founded on respect for individuals’ choices, and a deep understanding of the often winding and difficult road to recovery. The Peer Program reflects these values by operating with a compassionate and judgment-free approach.

“As long as they can show up and do the work, that is all that should matter. And that is what Zach and Elena have done, consistently, and it’s been unbelievable.”

Elena and Zach

Elena and Zach met in a park on a hot day in Oregon, while they were both travelling independently around the country. Elena is from a small town in northeastern Ohio, while Zach is from Texas.

“We feel very strongly that people deserve clean equipment and good health care. To be in a position where we can advocate for that is really amazing because no one was ever there to advocate for us.” — Zach

“It was really special. We were both backpacking separately across the country,” recounts Elena. “I saw him and he had a Grateful Dead tapestry, which is one of my favorite bands. I had just been in Washington mining for quartz and crystal, so I had a really big case of nice shiny rocks and gemstones. I showed them to him. It’s a really odd thing to be interested in. Not many people share a love of minerals! But he did too, and so we’ve been together ever since. That was three years ago.”

Through their shared interests in music and minerals, Elena and Zach formed a strong bond. Together they grew an extensive collection of gems.

“After we met, we made that our focus, and we went on mining expeditions while we were moving around the country. You can go in any national forest or Bureau of Land Management land and you’re legally allowed to remove seven to 20 pounds of minerals every day,” Elena explains. “We have the gift of gab, so we took our cases of rocks out on the sidewalk in any city we were at and sold them on the street.”

Elena walks through the Tenderloin on a Friday afternoon outreach.

 

But when they arrived in San Francisco, Zach and Elena committed fully to volunteering at GLIDE. Today, they help run our Syringe Access Services, lead community outreach and needle sweeps, and were sponsored by GLIDE to become certified as Hep C/HIV test counselors.

“We were the first peers that Paul [Harkin, Director of GLIDE Harm Reduction Services] sent to become certified,” says Elena with justifiable pride.

“We’ve both had our fair share of experiences in places where there was no harm reduction,” adds Zach. “We feel very strongly that people deserve clean equipment and good health care. To be in a position where we can advocate for that is really amazing because no one was ever there to advocate for us. We’ve definitely needed these services, and we definitely used them all when we first got to San Francisco.

“We’ve since straightened our lives out in a different way, so we’re not using every day, but there was a point when we were using three, four, five times a day, coming here for supplies and hitting GLIDE up when they were on outreach.”

“The people around us are extremely supportive of what we’re going through, and that’s amazing. I couldn’t do it without them, and especially not without Zach.” — Elena

“Now, we’re actually providing the services that we used to come here to get ourselves. That really adds to our passion for it,” says Zach. “If it wasn’t for these guys, we wouldn’t have gotten the things we needed.”

Elena and Zach speak candidly but thoughtfully about their relationship with drugs over the years. Elena struggled with opioids for six years, and other substances before that.

“There were times when I was off and on, but there wasn’t any time when I was off that I wasn’t thinking about being on,” she says. “I’m dealing with 15 years of depression right now, in this time of transformation. The people around us are extremely supportive of what we’re going through, and that’s amazing. I couldn’t do it without them, and especially not without Zach.”

As for Zach, he has been injecting drugs for over three years, but says that he has been doing opiates since he was in his early teens.

“I remember a specific point in my youth when I decided to steal a bottle of Jack Daniel’s out of my dad’s closet. I was on opiates soon after that,” he explains. “I got addicted to drugs because I have problems that I’m trying to cope with.”

Now, Elena and Zach are studying for their Community Health Worker Certificate at the Community College of San Francisco (CCSF), and both intend to pursue BA degrees afterwards.

“I was concerned about going to school while homeless, but it’s been good. The teachers are supportive,” says Zach. “We are slowly moving forward in our lives.”

Elena plans to develop a strong application for UC Berkeley through her extensive harm reduction experience and CCSF coursework. Her goal is to have a profession in clinical research for an organization that focuses on the mental health benefits of controlled use of psychedelic medicines, such as psilocybin and MDMA.

“I’m interested in studies looking at these substances being used to treat depression and PTSD, and LSD being used for alcoholism and other disorders. The FDA is approving things that we never thought would be approved. That’s the field where I would like to see myself in eight to 10 years,” Elena says.

Zach wants to continue his education and work in harm reduction as well.

“I look forward to getting into a position where I can help troubled kids find their path and stay out of trouble because that is where I was when I was a kid. No one could relate to me, no one tried to relate to me. I really want to be that somebody that kids can relate to and help them find a good productive path,” he says.

Zach carries harm reduction supplies for distribution in the Tenderloin.


Radical love

As with any recovery journey, Zach and Elena’s love story is far from a fairytale. They have faced relapse. They are technically unhoused, currently living in a navigation center and unsure of where they will find a roof at the end of the month. And, while they thankfully have free tuition at CCSF, they still need to find affordable ways to access readings for their courses, purchase food and navigate complicated government systems to ensure they stay housed, healthy and safe.

Through all of this—years of substance use, mental health issues and financial insecurity—they have maintained their love for each other and for the community they serve. Their ongoing story is a testament to the power of unconditional love to not only transform individuals but whole communities and society at large. It is no small coincidence that harm reduction approaches are simultaneously the most effective and the most compassionate ways to address substance use disorders.

“GLIDE has helped me in ways that no one else ever has,” Zach said.

Elena agrees.

“I don’t think I’d be where I am at without these people at GLIDE,” she says. “Working here is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me in my entire life. They took me as I was—and look at the work I’ve been able to do.”