At the Corner of Care and Compassion: St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction Perseveres Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic
They first faced the HIV/AIDS epidemic with compassion, empathy, and a dedication to fighting stigma against injection drug users. Now, St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction remains committed to these values, to community outreach, to “meeting people where they’re at” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through their tireless work and dedication, they have been able to provide thousands of meals, distribute PPE kits, and expand access to their other services.
St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction (SACHR) is a multi-service agency in the South Bronx dedicated to meeting the needs of members of their community facing addiction and potentially homelessness. Founded by Joyce Rivera in 1990, SACHR was born out of a shopping cart with supplies that Rivera would distribute herself. SACHR has grown so much since then, providing services to dozens of individuals daily at their primary location and reaching those on the streets through an outreach van and volunteers in the South Bronx. Access to clean syringes is a central service that SACHR provides to reduce the transmission of HIV, Hepatitis-C (HPC), and other infectious diseases. SACHR also provides interested individuals with rapid HIV and HPC testing, and links them to treatment and care when appropriate.
We met with Dina Kharieh and Krystal Montalvo, Co-Directors of Programs, Steven Hernandez, Executive Assistant to Joyce Rivera, as well as Niki Katsigiannis, Director of Operations at SACHR to discuss their experiences working throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Can you provide a little insight into what harm reduction is and how it’s different from other “solutions” to the problems you’re working to ameliorate?
Krystal: Harm reduction is basically meeting people wherever they’re at in their substance use journey, whether they are actively using, whether they are trying to stop using, when they are reengaging in use. Our job is basically to provide safety to our participants and non-judgmental care. We provide access to services, whether those services be food, assistance with finding housing, assistance with finding MAT (Medicated Assisted Treatment) services, anything they need help with, it’s our job to provide the resources to that.
Dina: A lot of people believe that the end goal is abstinence, for us, we don’t believe that; we believe that fundamentally it’s where they are at that moment, what they most need.
How have you seen a difference in the way your grassroots organization impacts the community as opposed to larger, more top-down approaches?
Krystal: We like the way harm reduction is a holistic model, and we look at the person as a whole person, and what their unique, specific need is. We are not the drivers of this car, our participants are.
What new initiatives SACHR is working on?
Dina: Our initiative which we launched about two months ago is our outreach. Our central office was open throughout COVID and we’ve seen a decrease in participants showing up at our doors, either because they’re afraid to leave their encampment sites or to interact with people because of COVID. A lot of the stories we get from our outreach workers is that many of the participants were staying away from everyone because they didn’t have masks, which was very heartbreaking to hear.
Niki: We really see that the challenges our participants face have been exponentially compounded during COVID. Part of harm reduction is not only synonymous to substance abuse, it’s also assisting vulnerable populations meet their basic needs. Our centralized services since the onset of COVID transformed into our meal services, which we now have ongoing during all of our hours of operation and we’ve exceeded 65% of last year’s fiscal meals — over 23 thousand meals in the fiscal year. As far as the PPE kits, we’ve exceeded 19 thousand PPE kits as well as urban survival and feminine kits to our community.
How else has the pandemic affected your operations as an organization?
Dina: Just as an agency and what we do, a lot of our other supplies have been impacted by [COVID] as well. Krystal and I share the Syringe Access program, and essentially why we called it Syringe Access is that we have been distributing these syringes and there has been a decrease in delivery as such. All throughout COVID, we’ve received a 35% decrease in syringes which we would normally get from the state. This leads to a change — an imbalance — to everything we’ve been serving to this community for so many years because if we can’t give them proper syringes, then so many other problems are going to arise.
It’s been stressful for staff as well. Our staff has been experiencing extreme burnout, extreme exhaustion, especially because it’s not that they ever stopped working, in fact they’ve been working harder especially in the outreach. A lot of us haven’t seen our family in so long.
Nickoletta: A lot of the lives that we touch on a daily basis really need on-site staffing. So for us, it really was no question. A lot of agencies went to remote work and decreased their hours, we actually expanded our hours at St. Ann’s.
How did you find out about PPE4ALL/PPE4NYC?
Nickoletta: We were trying to secure disposable face masks to first our staff and also our participants who could not afford those face masks themselves. I was given PPE4NYC’s contact information through an affiliate volunteer at Einstein Medical School, and I was able to touch base with Krishna very early on. We got a few deliveries of hand sanitizers, reusable cloth face masks, and face shields that were really paramount to helping our mobile syringe program and meeting our participants in the community to still provide safety. We were able to meet with Krishna and the team as early as March of last year and we continued our partnership up until now!
How do you see SACHR moving forward once the pandemic ends?
Dina: I think with COVID, hopefully coming to an end, the biggest thing, which isn’t really a change, would be going back to our support groups. That was a really big thing here at SACHR. It was a way for individuals to come and feel like they’re being heard… it’s for them to feel like they have someone to advocate for them. I know it seems like it’s something small, but for our participants, it’s something really really big.
Nickoletta: Yeah, our drop-in space was really lively. We’d have congregate meals. We’d have 75 participants, whether they’re playing games, watching TV, or even having some form of respite… so we would really like to go back to what we call “normal” in our drop-in space. As much as we are meeting the needs on a grab-and-go basis, the time really is for us to try to get our participants back in the drop-in safely.
PPE4ALL is honored to work with St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction and support them in the critical work they do. Please consider supporting SACHR by making a donation.