Reflections On Housing And Harm Reduction

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This is the final part of the series of guest posts considering the topic of housing and harm reduction.  In this piece I am happy to share some reflections from Ron F, House of Friendship’s Residential Services Director.

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(I write these reflections in the early morning setting of a coffee shop in downtown Kitchener. Some of the surrounding tables are occupied by strangers to me, others by people I know as tenants or residents of House of Friendship residential programs. We are all included in this daily community at the caffeine dispensary.)

I really like Sara’s framing of the issue of housing and harm reduction as an issue of community inclusion. This is aligned with our House of Friendship vision of “a healthy community where all can belong and thrive”. Community inclusion and harm reduction approaches both begin with “belonging” by “accepting a person where they are at” without judgement. I believe the goal is not simply “belonging”, but “healthy belonging” where “healthy” refers to a respectful social environment in which everyone’s capabilities are nurtured and accepted as valuable contributions to the community.

“Sense of Community Factors”

While I agree that factors such as “shared emotional connection” and “influence” impact a person’s subjective experience of community inclusion, I believe that everyone is a part of the community, just like your hair is a part of your body whether you like it or not. How we treat one another is another matter, but we are in fact already all connected, belonging to one community.

“Supporting until we exclude”

Sara’s blogs are about the exclusionary impact on people being barred or restricted from service when their behaviour is “deemed difficult or undesirable” and how “harm reduction” is an alternative, more inclusionary approach.

I do not see “service restriction” and “harm reduction” as mutually exclusive opposites on the same plane. Harm reduction is a goal, guiding value and overall strategy, while service restriction is a specific tool for maintaining a safe and welcoming environment to be used when behaviour renders the environment unsafe.

The practice of either can lead to negative, unintended results. Harm reduction’s value of accepting the person can have the unintended result of increasing the risk of harm when actions that directly threaten the safety of the person or others are accepted. As Sara’s blog correctly points out, the practice of service restriction can be an abuse of power that prevents people from accessing service, thus exacerbating the experience of rejection.

Service restriction can be an effective tool for supporting individuals and community safety in some circumstances. It is a tool that ensures immediate safety and provides concrete demonstration of the exclusionary impact and broken “social contract” of harmful behaviours. Harm reduction as an approach can evolve to a lowered expectation and hope that individuals will ever be accepted as more that marginal members of society to be tolerated.

Relationship-intensive Work

As approaches in a residential setting or a public gathering space the practice of harm reduction and service restriction are relationship-intensive work. By “relationship-intensive” I mean that the personal relationships and “presence” that staff or volunteers establish with people seeking service is key.

The teeth of this key that opens the door is communication (consisting of words, tone and body language). It is by respectful, compassionate communication that we accept people with difficult or undesirable behaviours so that we can support them to be as safe as possible. It is by respectful, compassionate communication that we come to recognize people’s gifts and support them towards actions that will unleash those gifts for the benefit of the community. It is by respectful, compassionate communication that we enact and explain service restrictions when they are necessary in a way that is not an act of rejection but an act of respect and hope for the future.

When we relate with people in all our interactions (whether simply greeting, holding people accountable or giving a service) with deep respect and compassion we will truly reduce harm and build a healthy community where each person is supported to thrive as member of our community to which they in fact belong.

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