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Santa Cruz Harm Reduction Group Awarded $400,000

Coalition awaits final approval from state public health department

Harm reduction supplies are displayed at a 2018 Santa Cruz event for Public Health Week. PHOTO: KEANA PARKER

A volunteer group known for doing needle distributions in Santa Cruz County has landed grant funding to support new staff positions and stipends.

Kate Garrett, managing member for the Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County (HRCSCC) announced Thursday that the group secured a portion of a new $12.2 million chunk for harm reduction programs awarded via the statewide California Harm Reduction Initiative.

The California Department of Public Health is funding the grant program, and the National Harm Reduction Coalition is administering it. The HRCSCC, which pulled in $405,000, is still waiting to hear from the Department of Public Health on the status of its application, in order to officially become a certified state-supported secondary syringe exchange program. The HRCSCC will not have access to the grant funding unless the state gives official approval to the group’s secondary exchange.

Public health studies have shown that exchanges of clean syringes reduce the risk of preventable infections and other health problems, including the spread of disease. County Chief of Public Health Jen Herrera recently told GT that some evidence has also shown that exchanges correlate with lower rates of syringe litter.

But skeptics say cleanups have been turning up overwhelming numbers of littered dirty syringes in public spaces. They blame the HRCSCC’s work, and some support strict rules around the county-run Syringe Services Program, which supplies syringes both to the HRCSCC and to injection drug users directly.

Last year, the county Board of Supervisors limited the number of syringes a group or individual may collect at a time. The Board of Supervisors opposes the HRCSCC’s application to the state, as does Santa Cruz Police Chief Andy Mills and Sheriff Jim Hart. Santa Cruz Mayor Justin Cummings supports the group’s application.

Garrett, the HRCSCC managing member, thinks the new grant funding bodes well for the group’s state application.

“We’re taking the fact that we got this money as a sign that authorization is coming,” she says.

The statewide money is California’s first staffing support for harm reduction programs in the state in 10 years, according to information from the national Harm Reduction Coalition.

In addition to syringes, the HRCSCC distributes other supplies like alcohol swabs and the overdose-reducing substance Narcan. If the group secures final approval from the state, the HRCSCC would use the cash to fund two new staff positions—one for Garrett and another for fellow volunteer organizer Dani Drysdale—over a three-year period. The rest of the money would go to participants who assist with the program, in the form of stipends. Garrett says the HRCSCC will be receptive to suggestions on how to spend that portion of the cash.

”We’ll be open to ideas from participants,” she says.

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