There’s a lot of stigma attached to drug use. But Bloomberg Fellow Haven Wheelock sees straight through to the humanity of people dealing with substance use disorders. 

At Portland’s Outside In, a nonprofit nationally known for providing social and medical services to homeless youth and drug users, Wheelock works to keep clients safe from overdose and other health complications of injection drug use. To do that, she oversees programs that include HIV and hepatitis testing, naloxone distribution, fentanyl testing and syringe exchange. It’s not an exaggeration to say her efforts have saved lives

We talked to Wheelock about how she came to her work and how being an online student in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health MPH program, , is helping her advance her public health goals.  

haven-wheelock
Bloomberg Fellow Haven Wheelock

How did you become interested in harm reduction?

I started doing HIV prevention work as a peer educator in 1998, in high school. I found it appalling that we weren’t allowed to talk about how drugs interfaced with HIV risks. Later, when I moved to New York, I started volunteering at a needle exchange. I fell in love with it. At its core, harm reduction is about being kind. Simple interventions create such meaningful experiences for people. 

Can you give an example of one of those meaningful experiences?

I had a client who was an injection meth user and part of the men-who-have-sex-with-men community. He started coming to the clinic and after a few visits said that he’d never been tested for HIV.  I said, ‘Let’s get it done.’ He started coming in regularly for HIV testing and we began talking about health behaviors he could change. 

The first health behavior he wanted to change was quitting smoking. We got him into a doctor to get him on some medicine. From then on, every time he came in, he had something new he wanted to work on. 

Now, he’s not using meth. He’s in a steady relationship and on PrEP, an HIV prevention drug. Because I was kind and being present, he was able to build this trust with me and then move forward to a healthier lifestyle. 

What does being a part of that sort of transformation feel like? 

It’s amazing. I walk through downtown Portland and I can’t go more than a few blocks without people giving me high fives or telling me how their life is doing. It’s a beautiful population to be a part of. I think of drug users here in Portland as part of my community.

How have you been able to apply what you’re learning in the MPH program to your work at Outside In?

I’m taking a Campaigning and Organizing class that explains how to change public policies to promote health. That class is going to be fundamental to my effort to bring supervised consumption spaces to Portland. 

Providing locations for people to use drugs under medical supervision is a life-changer for folks. Right now, we’re providing kindness and tools, but then I have to say, ‘Now go away and take care of your health concern in the alley.’ Safe consumption laws would fix that.