The current opioid overdose crisis in North America is heightening awareness of the need for and the challenges of implementing harm reduction, notably within complex and diverse settings such as homeless shelters. In this paper, we explore the implementation of harm reduction in homeless shelters during an emerging overdose emergency.
The objective of this qualitative study was to identify and understand micro-environment level factors within emergency shelters responding to homelessness and substance use, and the macro-level influences that produce and sustain structural vulnerabilities. We conducted eight focus groups with a total of 49 participants during an emerging overdose emergency. These included shelter residents (n = 23), shelter staff (n = 13), and harm reduction workers (n = 13).
The findings illustrate the challenges of implementing an overdose response when substance use is prohibited onsite, without an expectation of abstinence, and where harm reduction services are limited to the distribution of supplies. In this context, harm reduction is partially implemented and incomplete. Shelters can be a site of risks and trauma for residents and staff due to experiencing, witnessing, and responding to overdoses.
The current overdose crisis heightens the challenges of implementing harm reduction, particularly within complex and diverse settings such as homeless shelters. When harm reduction is limited to the distribution of supplies such as clean equipment and naloxone, important principles of engagement and the development of trust necessary to the provision of services are overlooked with negative implications for service users.
Bruce Wallace, Katrina Barber, Bernadette (Bernie) Pauly
International Journal of Drug Policy, Volume 53, March 2018