Zoë Harris: Preventing overdose & empowering clients


Zoë Harris joined the board of directors of San Francisco AIDS Foundation nearly two years ago to provide strategic leadership to the organization and help make decisions around funding, resources and program work. But, she didn't give up hope that she'd still be able to do on-the-ground work as a volunteer for a cause that is close to her heart: syringe access and needle exchange.

Zoë Harris

Now, when Harris isn't at her full-time job at Genentech or participating in foundation board meetings, you might find her at the foundation's 6th Street Harm Reduction Center talking to participants about fentanyl appearing in the drug supply, how to spot an overdose, how to use the overdose prevention medication naloxone (Narcan) or where to access other critical health and social services.

"The experience that I've gotten from working at 6th Street has been unparalleled,” said Harris. "When I started volunteering there, I was blown away by the impact the staff have on the community. I see people come in who don't want to talk to anyone. But they'll leave with an HIV test, a snack, counseling and Narcan: In addition to clean needles and injection supplies. It's one of the most amazing community outreach programs I've ever seen.”

The 6th Street Harm Reduction Center provides services to people primarily in the Tenderloin/SoMa neighborhood in San Francisco, most who use drugs and are unhoused or living in poverty. In addition to providing people with safe sex and drug use supplies, the Harm Reduction Center provides free, low-to-no barrier HIV and hepatitis C testing, drop-in groups, wound care, a hepatitis C treatment program, linkage to treatment and other health services, and overdose prevention.  

Harris recently completed training to become a drug overdose prevention and education (DOPE) trainer. In this role, she is helping to get the word out about the spike in drug overdoses happening locally and around the nation due to fentanyl (a powerful synthetic opioid) being cut into the drug supply, and equipping people with the tools and knowledge people need to recognize and respond to drug overdose. 

"We ask every single person who comes in to 6th Street if they need Narcan," said Harris. "Narcan is an incredible tool—it blocks the opioid receptors and brings people out of overdose. When people know how to recognize overdose, know how to react, and have Narcan on them, people are able to save lives."

The DOPE Project, which provides overdose prevention services at the 6th Street Harm Reduction Center and through a number of other community organizations in San Francisco, reported that more than a thousand lives were saved with Narcan in the past year.

"We ask people who come back for a Narcan refill if they used it. And if they say yes, we listen to their story and commend them for saving someone's life. We're empowering all of these people in our community to be part of the solution, and to help each other. It's incredibly powerful." 

Harris is not new to the harm reduction work of syringe access and exchange programs— inspired by her father's pioneering AIDS work in the 1980s, she's been involved in the space of HIV prevention for almost 20 years. For many years, she volunteered on a mobile syringe access van through the nonprofit Prevention Point in Philadelphia. This experience, she said, opened her eyes to the effectiveness of harm reduction and the importance of low-threshold programs that bring critical supplies out to communities in need.

Since moving to San Francisco in 2006, Harris said that she "remained passionate and maintained a strong belief in harm reduction," which is what led her to San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

"The mission and values of San Francisco AIDS Foundation really spoke to me," she said. "And volunteering at 6th Street has allowed me to have a greater sense of the work that the foundation does. Every day, I see the incredible impact on our community."

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Volunteers are a critical part of San Francisco AIDS Foundation—doing everything from serving on the Board of Directors, to working with our Syringe Access Services, to staffing special events. Find more information here or find out how you can get involved by emailing volunteer@sfaf.org.

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