About 10 years ago, I was living in a shelter. I went to a couple of other shelters from there before going into transitional housing and, eventually, the Harrison Hotel in downtown Oakland. I stayed there for about four years before moving into my current apartment in Berkeley, where I’ve been for the last five years.

This story is part of Amplify Oakland, our series of first-person stories shared by Oaklanders in their own words. Read more.

I was about a year into my sobriety when I moved into the Harrison, and I did a lot during my time there. I decided to go back to school, and I enrolled in classes at Laney College. It’s where I began developing a relationship with my children again. My son was seven or eight, and his father had just passed the year previous to me moving in there. I also re-developed a relationship with my parents during that time. My adult daughter stayed a few days with me at the Harrison, and we went through our recovery together. Oakland saved our lives; our lives started again here. 

At Laney, I had to do an internship. A job developer asked me if I wanted to be part of a street medicine van team that was just starting up in East Oakland. There was a similar van that I had been involved with when I was homeless that was instrumental to my survival, so I agreed. There was a doctor, “Dr. J,” and he would do street outreach with the team. They had needle exchange sites on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I said, “Ok, I can help with that,” because I have my own history of substance use. So I worked with the doctor for my internship. I would sit there with a little line notebook and I would talk to people and put their favorite songs on the computer and write down what they were seeing the doctor for. That’s how it started.

HEPPAC (HIV Education and Prevention Program of Alameda County) fixed sites—where needle exchange and harm reduction supplies are provided—and outreach locations are where the internship hours took place. When my internship was over, HEPPAC asked me if I’d like to work for them part-time. As a member of the Alameda County Health Care for the Homeless Community Consumer Advisory Board, I was asked if I wanted to do a Consumer and Family Fellowship program with Alameda County Care Connect. Once I did that, I became involved with different projects. 

International Overdose Awareness Day

What: HEPPAC is hosting an event in Oakland for International Overdose Awareness Day.

There will be free food, overdose prevention training, a syringe exchange, Narcan and fentanyl strip distribution, linkage to Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), and an interactive memorial commemorating lives lost to overdose.

When: Thursday, Aug. 31, 5-8 p.m.

Where: 100th Avenue and Pearmain Street in Oakland (HEPPAC’s Thursday night needle exchange location)

The event is co-sponsored by La Clínica, CAL-PEP, and the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse.

When COVID hit, we started connecting with the individuals placed in the COVID hotels. We were assigned to people and would talk to them and see what they needed. Because when somebody comes up off the street and they’ve been living in that environment for a long time and you put them in a hotel room, everybody thinks they’re happy. But they aren’t, always. Sometimes they don’t know how to deal with it. So I was doing that work. 

Now the COVID emergency is over, as far as the relief and emergency funding for housing and COVID-related budget allowances. So you’ve got a lot of people that are left struggling and they’re wondering what’s happening. You have individuals that are medically fragile and you have individuals that are just out there, and everybody’s kind of wondering what’s going on. 

When I came back to work at the HEPPAC office, I decided to come back full time and I haven’t stopped since. On a typical day, I’ll wake up at 6 a.m., come into the office with my cup of coffee at 7:30 a.m., and start checking my four or five different email inboxes. I’m also a SUN, a substance use navigator, which is a job that I do on-site at our Tuesday and Thursday night location. 

We have a mobile clinic there, with a medical provider who’s a nurse practitioner. If you come to the site, and you want to start on a Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) like Suboxone, she can get you started that night. She can send the prescription to a pharmacy and you can pick it up or she can see you for any other medical concern. As she’s doing that, I’m the person on the computer that gets you into the system. I set the appointment, I type the notes, and the next day I do the follow-up.

Having the title of case manager carries surprise responsibilities. I usually have two or three clients that I follow up on. I can do their grocery shopping online and help with daily tasks that most people take for granted. I also get phone calls from random individuals. I get calls and emails and requests from people all day long who need information, whether they’re homeless, have no income, or want to know how to get into a particular type of housing. I’m in a lot of different meetings. It’s hard to explain all the different things I do, so when someone asks me, my general go-to is to say that I’m a “hat rack”—I do a lot of different stuff. But it all boils down to harm reduction for the individual, whatever risky behavior it is they’re doing.

Medication-assisted treatment is one of the things that helps people. But a big challenge we’re trying to solve is how to address stimulant use. Meth, it’s a big thing. People are using that a lot. We also have a lot of issues with fentanyl. So different treatments for different types of substances—being able to nail that down and help people—is big right now because overdose is not going away. People are just dying, and we’re trying to stop the dying at this point.

At first, fentanyl was in the drugs and people didn’t know it was in there, and that’s what was killing people. But that’s not so much what fentanyl’s role is now. What I’m hearing personally, in my conversations with people, is them saying, “I didn’t want to inject it anymore, so I started smoking it.” With full knowledge, they’re buying and smoking fentanyl, and they’re feeling better about it because they’re not injecting anymore. So that’s a big thing. Fentanyl is a lot of people’s drug of choice now.

“Having personal experience can be an asset. I can speak plainly with two or three of my clients because I’ve known them since before they were my clients. And they can speak plainly to me.”

I was an IV drug user for the better part of the 30 years. There was a time when I was homeless and I lived in a tent. I went from there to the shelter to the transitional housing to the Harrison Hotel to the SRO to getting on the housing waiting list for an apartment. I went through the whole thing. 

During the transitional housing phase, there was a mental health diagnosis, a misdiagnosis, and medications that were prescribed wrong. I almost died from lithium toxicity poisoning. So I have been from one end of the spectrum all the way to the other end, and I’ve seen the mismanagement of the mental health system. And that’s why I believe that the movement for peer and community health work is priceless. I don’t think that there’s going to be any movement in a positive direction without people with lived experience being involved.

Having personal experience can be an asset. I can speak plainly with two or three of my clients because I’ve known them since before they were my clients. And they can speak plainly to me. I had one tell me, “I was trying to get high,” and this is what happened and that’s where it happened. I believe there’s a level of honesty there that they’re just not going to have with anybody else. I’m not going to tell you to quit and I’m not going to judge you for what you’re doing. 

There’s so much going on right now in the world and in the city itself. There’s shootings, there’s fires, there’s a lot going on. But there’s also overdose—people that are suffering and people that are dying—and that needs to be recognized. As well as the people that are surviving, and the people that are saving them. Overdose doesn’t have to happen. There’s access to medications that can prevent it and help people slow down their use. 

If someone comes to our site, they can walk up and talk to me for one minute, not even one minute, and I will get your name and your birthday, and you’ll be in an RV with our doctor who could be prescribing you the medication you need. You can come and be trained on how to use Naloxone (Narcan) and save a life. Just that quick, that easy. We will help you, and we will not judge you.