By Emma Castleberry
The Steady Collective, a harm reduction nonprofit based in Asheville, started in November of 2015. The founder, Conner Adams, facilitated support group meetings and, with the help of friends, delivered naloxone (a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose) and needles throughout Western NC to people who use drugs and their friends and family.
While there were syringe access programs in the region before 2016, very few of those programs were founded on the Principles of Harm Reduction. These eight principles, originally outlined by the National Harm Reduction Coalition, center around a strategy of encouraging safer and managed use of drugs as well as abstinence. The harm reduction approach accepts both licit and illicit drug use as a part of life, rather than ignoring or condemning those who use drugs. “The need for services for drug users that were non-judgemental and non-coercive was great at the time of Steady’s founding,” says Steady Collective director Hill Brown, who was a founding board member.
In 2016, Steady Collective held its first syringe access outreach day in the back of Firestorm Books in West Asheville. It continued to host these events weekly, along with the distribution of clean injecting equipment and naloxone in three other Asheville locations. Since the pandemic, Steady has been doing its outreach out of a mobile unit the organization purchased with support from Grace Covenant Presbyterian. “Historically, we have been able to spend more time with participants,” says Brown. “Providing services out of the window of a truck has changed that.”
Buncombe County has some of the highest overdose rates in the state: 32.5 deaths per 100,000 residents, in comparison to the statewide rate of 17.2 deaths per 100,000 residents (as reported by the NC Department of Health and Human Services in 2019). “People who use drugs experience a high level of discrimination and mistreatment due in large part to the criminalization of drug use,” says Brown. “In Asheville, one of the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the US, people served by Steady Collective are regularly left without vital resources and basic supports.”
Steady Collective participants often report experiencing harm and neglect in jails, medical facilities and treatment centers. In addition to their other outreach work, Steady staff follow up on these reports and work to stop abuse. “We believe people who use drugs and we are invested in stopping harm at every level, including the harms perpetrated by systems,” says Brown.
In 2020, Steady Collective recorded its one thousandth overdose reversal report, meaning more than 1,000 potentially fatal overdoses have been reversed by participants who have received naloxone from the organization. “We have always known that the real first responders to a drug overdose are people who use drugs,” says Brown. “It just makes sense to get naloxone to people who are actively using and train them on how to administer naloxone. Steady’s participants are saving lives and it continues to be an honor to provide them with the tools they need to keep themselves and one another healthy.”
Those interested in supporting Steady Collective can donate, attend one of the group’s community syringe clean-ups, visit an outreach site to learn how to use naloxone and push back on language that stigmatizes drug use and substance use disorder. Visit TheSteadyCollective.org for more information.