On my way to work one morning during the pandemic, I had to pick up some naloxone kits for the hotel that is providing transitional housing to people reentering the community from provincial correctional facilities. I was walking down Cornwallis Street and I saw the friendly and familiar face of Cliff Robinson, standing outside of our local Needle Syringe Program (NSP), Mainline Needle Exchange. Robinson is part of the Mainline community, working with the organization to support their programs, and receiving support when he needs it, too.
Not just during the pandemic but all the time, NSPs are an essential service. Mainline provides health care to some of our community’s most marginalized populations. Providing safe sterile syringes and other using paraphernalia to people who use drugs is the humane thing to do—and it’s also a cost-effective way of preventing serious and fatal health complications such as bloodborne infections like HIV, Hepatitis C virus (HCV), endocarditis and overdose.
They don’t just act as a place to come in to get safe using supplies or to be referred to other social or health services. They support their clients with nearly everything including housing, taxes, nutrition and a sense of community.
In the middle of a pandemic, Robinson was waiting for the Stericycle truck to load all the biohazardous buckets from people’s already used drug paraphernalia. In an age of a deadly virus, certain jobs still need to be done the old fashioned way. People are still going to use drugs and because of organizations like Mainline and people like Cliff exist, people will have the options to stay safe even during a pandemic.
“Working with Mainline has meant the world to me,” Robinson tells The Coast.
Mainline is one of many programs of the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre, and just like a hospital, the site is open 365 days a year. It also has a site in Dartmouth and provides central and western zone outreach.
People who use drugs need to be educated on evidence-based ways to prevent infections, and where is a better place to do that than a place someone feels comfortable coming in to receive safe using supplies. Mainline gives purpose to a whole community of wonderful individuals like Robinson.
Robinson helps out with everything you could imagine. He shows up every morning, grabs the tweezers and a sharps disposal and is on his way. He does a needle search in the streets of Halifax to make sure that residents are that much safer from being exposed to a used syringe or pipe. In the winter Robinson is there faithfully, too, shovelling and salting the walkway so everyone can access the site. He’s one of the most admirable and reliable people I have met working in the harm reduction field. He is a pillar of the strong but mighty Halifax neighbourhood.
Halifax was already in an HIV and HCV epidemic long before COVID-19. Now people who use drugs are facing a syndemic of health issues, but harm reductionists are saving lives by doing the work that needs to be done to keep our population safe.
COVID-19 has resulted in the most deadly wave of the overdose crisis, with British Columbia reporting the deadly month yet with 170 confirmed overdose deaths. Just this week in Halifax, we’ve seen a new kind of fentanyl in our community, and this month a 15-year-old girl overdosed on what was likely MDMA laced with fentanyl. Reducing the harms of drug use is the only way out of this deadly syndemic face by drug users.
Harm reduction organizations are filled with people who do this work. Mainline is not just an organization though, it’s a community of people who use drugs or live in poverty that always stays open to support the community they serve.
Cliff told The Coast that Mainline has given him “a reason to stay alive.”
While you are at work or at the grocery store, think about the people like Robinson that don’t always have the sexy job but know their work is truly essential. They are doing it because it matters, because it will support someone else to hopefully prevent them from contracting a deadly infection that may reduce their quality of life.
When asked if he had anything else he wanted to say to the public Robin said simply: “Stay safe and relax."