Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Harm Reduction Van

My Facebook and Blogging friend, Violet Umanetz, is a Social Worker (I "followed her home" many years ago from the blog of my daughter who is also a Social Worker). She is working in Harm Reduction programs in Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge, an Ontario tri-city of about 120,000.  Their program recently acquired a van to travel to parts of the city away from the downtown where people do not always have easy access to their office or St John's Kitchen where they go one day per week.  The van is out Thursday nights only for now and makes three stops around the city.  Violet has waxed ecstatic about the van and has allowed sharing of her most recent Facebook post:

Van Update! heart emoticon - By request, this is 'public' and absolutely okay to share. It's a long one, but it's based on some discussions I've had this week about The Van.
One of the best things about my job is that I get to hear people's stories - about their lives, their experiences, their challenges, and their successes. The majority of the stories that I hear are positive and upbeat, and quite often hilarious, and I think this surprises a lot of people who don't work in this field.
It's surprising because we've all been conditioned to "feel sorry" (at best) for people who are experiencing poverty, homelessness, addiction, and/or mental illnesses. We should pity them, right? Agencies often use that angle to convince you to donate to their programs. You've seen it - the idea is that if you can spare the cost of an expensive latte on your way to work, you can save someone from a terrible situation. Help the poor people who can't help themselves! Help the misguided people see the error of their drug-using ways! (ugh.)
Here's the thing: pity has never changed anything. Pity means looking down on people. It means expecting them to be grateful for the smallest of handouts and being offended when they aren't. It often means that we push judgment on people. Pity is very, very passive. Pity separates 'us' from 'them'.
This week, on the The Van, we started to hear some of the stories that people hold. (We were parked at one location for almost 2 hours, in fact, while we listened!) Every single story ended on a positive note. "This is just temporary." and "I'm going to call that agency tomorrow and see if I can get on their waiting list." and "Once I'm feeling better, I know I can go back to work." and "I know what I'm doing isn't great and I want to change some things."
If we were doing this out of pity, we'd shrug, hand each person $5 and move on.
Photo from the article link at the bottom
Instead, here's where we step in. Pete listens - and offers to connect someone to a specific person at a community agency and bring information about other services next week if they'd like to consider some options. Natasha gives someone harm reduction supplies and talks to them about things that have nothing do with drug use - because that drug use is just a small part of who that person is and what goes on in their life. I talk to a woman who is devastated by the overdoses in our community and feels powerless to do anything about it - and I train her to recognize an overdose and administer Naloxone. Our student makes mugs of hot chocolate and describes our services to people who aren't quite ready to talk to us about what's happening and who are still checking us out a bit.
There is no pity. This is the equivalent of seeing your neighbour shovelling a huge drift of snow from their driveway - and grabbing a shovel to go toss some snow around with them. We're not re-writing someone's story for them, we're levelling the playing field so that they have choices about how the next chapter goes.
It's better to get angry about the inequality and inequity - and try to figure out how to level the playing field instead of just accepting the way things are. We can't change the system over night, but we can make accessing services a bit easier with each passing week. Anger is far better than pity.
We are hearing more stories with each passing week and it means people are trusting us to hold those stories. They recognize that we're not there to judge what's happened in the past or what's happening now. It is a huge privilege that we take very, very seriously.
For everyone who has donated to The Van, or who has sent us encouragement during our launch, I wish I could explain just how much it has already helped. In the coming months, we're hoping we can share more - with the consent of the people in our community - but for now you'll have to take my word for it. The entire Sanguen Health Centre team is SO grateful that you're a part of this with us.

There was a wonderful article written about The Van this week - you can check it out here:…/2016/02/04/driving-with-the-d…/
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If you'd like to donate online, you can do that here -

And if you're like to donate specific items, our wishlist is here -…/1kL_Sbm01-kjmCuBny2cQ1Jo8hJg…/pub… as a PDF file


  1. Thank you for sharing this, Allen!!

  2. This is great! We need more vans (and especially people) like this. Thanks for sharing the article!

    1. Teachers, nurses, and social workers are the unsung heroes of the world


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