The final day of the 2014 SSDP Conference left all the attendees filled with energy and excitement. With hundreds of students in attendance, the conference provided new knowledge, new connections, and new ideas to each one of us! I am so grateful to SSDP for inviting me to attend and have been greatly impacted by all the people I met this past weekend. One of the many assets of the conference was the SSDP alumni that now work as outreach workers in harm reduction organizations. Their frontline experience provided some fascinating insights into what it means to truly serve the communities we are supporting.
Providing the Harm Reduction Clients Need
The importance of client-oriented harm reduction services was repeatedly emphasized at the conference. The “fixing, helping, serving” model was used to frame the different ways outreach workers can engage with clients. Although slightly different, both fixing and helping are scenarios in which assistance and solutions are imposed on problems or individuals. Contrastingly, serving is an approach in which the solutions are designed collaboratively.
A serving approach recognizes that a client may not agree with the outcome an outreach worker thinks is most desirable. Irina Alexander described her epiphany moment as when she learned that many of the homeless youth she worked with did not actually want to be housed. Rather than assuming what is best for a client, outreach workers should establish a connection and identify the client’s priorities, and then suggest ways to work on the issues that are important to them. A non-judgmental perspective is imperative to the serving approach, and specifically to avoid identifying the ideal pre-determined outcomes. James Kowalsky provided a useful motto for understanding the essence of a non-judgmental attitude when he said, “we have to accept for others what we would not accept for ourselves,” a quote that he borrowed from Matthew Silver.
Taking a fixing and helping approach is inappropriate as it assumes that clients are weak and need to be saved, which anyone that has done any outreach work knows is far removed from the truth! Outreach workers need to ensure that their (most often positive) intentions do not overshadow the client’s real needs and wants. Remember to check in with yourself when doing outreach and ask, “Am I trying to save?”
Posing questions and finding out what the client really means is essential to making their needs a priority. Respecting client’s individuality is also important, which means recognizing that the same approach doesn’t work for every person or every situation and you often need to be creative with how you counsel. Additionally, it is vital to support the empowerment of clients by giving them choices. Irina Alexander abides by these principles and the serving approach in her work, and has found that this often leads to some outside the box harm reduction strategies. Some examples in her experience include helping clients survive incarceration by sending them books, checking on the wellbeing of the aggressor in domestic violence situations, and creating strategies to reduce the negative effects of being sexually active while HIV positive. Since harm reduction should reduce the harms most important to the client, it can take a different form for each one of them.