Since harm reduction’s origins as a grassroots, activist movement, cooperation and compromise among people who use drugs, bureaucrats, politicians, and other actors have been critical to its advancement in Canada. Critics have argued, however, that the institutionalization of harm reduction practice within the context of a politically sensitive environment has eroded its radical potential. The overdose crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES) community has led to innovative harm reduction organizing that has been replicated globally. In this paper, we explore how one such intervention, the Tenant Overdose Response Organizers (TORO) program, has supported a resurgence in tenant-led harm reduction organizing in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) buildings in the DTES.
We draw on 15 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted between May 2017 and August 2018, over 100 hours of participant observation of TORO activities, and 15 semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders in the program.
TORO’s leaders attempted to mobilize harm reduction intervention towards collective action on SRO risk environments underlying drug-related harms, but their efforts were constrained by the necessity of meeting practical expectations of funders regarding health education and supply distribution. Navigating these constraints ultimately shaped the development of the TORO program, helping to secure its longevity but also limiting its ability to organize a coordinated harm reduction and tenants’ rights response to the dual housing and overdose crises.
Our examination of TORO demonstrates how the harm reduction movement continues to be shaped by conflict, cooperation, and compromise between the state and grassroots groups. Even as actors strive to work collaboratively, the unequal distribution of power inherent in this relationship may contribute to the reinscription of a depoliticized harm reduction approach. We discuss the potential role of the risk environment framework in lending political legitimacy to grassroots harm reduction initiatives.