The Skid Row harm in harm reduction by Tom Grode

A phrase heard in Skid Row community circles is “harm reduction”.

From Wikipedia:  

“Harm reduction (or less commonly known as harm minimization) refers to a range of public health policies designed to reduce the harmful consequences associated with human behaviors, even if those behaviors are risky or illegal. Examples of behaviors targeted for harm reduction policies include recreational drug use and prostitution.  In the case of recreational drug use, harm reduction is put forward as a useful perspective alongside the more conventional approaches of demand and supply reduction.

In Switzerland, heroin assisted treatment is fully a part of the national health programme. There are several dozen centers throughout the country at which heroin-dependent people can receive heroin in a controlled environment. The Swiss heroin maintenance programme is generally regarded as a successful and valuable component of the country’s overall approach to minimising the harms caused by drug use.  In a 2008 national referendum a majority of 68% voted in favor of continuing the programme.”

There are differing points of view regarding the value of harm reduction as governmental social policy and those differing points of view are not the point of this article.

In the American evangelical church is an ongoing issue and fifteen years ago a movement swept through it dealing with this issue.  It was a very simple movement and took the form of simple acts of kindness – acts of kindness with no strings attached.  The phrase most commonly used to describe the movement was “servant evangelism”.

This movement was in response to a mindset and behavior often found with evangelicals and has to do with “witnessing” and “service”.  This mindset and behavior got to the point where one large mega-church in the mid-west published a book where Christians were encouraged to organize a graph so their relationships with non-Christians could be analyzed in terms of “bringing them to Christ”.  And so conversations with neighbors or co-worker were judged as productive if you were able to work into the inter-action some Bible verses or an invitation to attend church.  Of course, the people you were interacting with had no idea their relationship with you was appearing on a graph.

What was the motive for this movement of “servant evangelism”?  A simple act of kindness for the sake of kindness, yes.  A resolve to act in the face of a church culture of often hidden agendas, yes.

For example, one form this “servant evangelism” took was to stand at off ramps on a hot day and simply hand out cold bottles of water for free possibly with the words “God Bless You” taped to the bottle.  If the person receiving the water wanted to talk, that’s great, and if the conversation naturally flowed in the direction of Christianity as the person receiving the kindness led the conversation, that’s great.  But that wasn’t the point.  The point was a simple act of kindness with no other goal or purpose beyond the blessing of God on that kindness.

Over time some churches co-opted this movement and along with the words “God Bless You” taped to the bottle also added the name of the church with the address to attend on Sunday.  Adding the name of a church wasn’t simply adding something to “God Bless You”, it invalidated the entire premise of the action.

There is some truth this movement ended because the church forces resisting it were so strong that it simply ground to a half.  There is some truth this movement ended because it succeeded in changing the thinking and behavior of a generation of evangelical Christians.

Harm reduction in Skid Row is the church address taped to the bottle of cold water.

(Since harm reduction in Skid Row is not actually harm reduction because part of the definition of harm reduction involves official governmental policy, the question then becomes what should what’s called harm reduction in Skid Row actually be called and the answer to that question will be found in the unofficial land use policy known as “containment policy”).

By Tom Grode

Blogger’s note: The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Trees on San Pedro Street Project editrix, Ms. McNenny. This is a Community improvement blog and not faith-based.

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