The Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County gives away free syringes in nine sizes.
The Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County gives away free syringes in nine sizes. The program’s goal is to reduce the spread of bloodborne illnesses.
(Rachel Bluth / Kaiser Health News)
Civic Life

Harm Reduction Coalition awarded $100K grant to expand testing of hepatitis C, HIV for unhoused population

The $100,000 grant from AIDS United and others will allow the Santa Cruz group to expand its testing of viral diseases among the county’s unhoused population. Dani Drysdale, who runs the Safe Syringe program, said many people are not aware they even have hepatitis C. Knowing is the first step toward treatment.

Dani Drysdale has been working overtime to address the needs of the unhoused since the pandemic began, when needle exchange options shuttered and Santa Cruzans were left without options.

“There’s just a huge lack of these services in the county,” said the Safe Syringes program coordinator.

Help is on the way. On Feb. 18, the nonprofit was one of 50 organizations across the country awarded funding from AIDS United and National Alliance of States and Territorial Aids Directors, as part of the new grant program to expand syringe exchanges in the wake of COVID-19. Used needles can quickly spread that disease, but the focus of the grant is to help track and prevent other viral ones like HIV and hepatitis C.

The Harm Reduction Coalition received $100,000 toward its efforts locally to increase both its needle exchanges as well as to expand testing among the county’s unhoused population.

Fiscal Director Kate Garrett said that funding from national organizations like AIDS United allows the organization to expand its work.

“Our capacity has expanded really rapidly in the past few years,” Garrett said, noting its annual budget increased from $5,000 to $600,000 over the last few years — and it’s all tied to the need. “More money just means more services …I think all these services are essential.”

With this new funding, Garrett and Drysdale said the organization is looking to hire two additional coordinators. The new employees will work with founder Denise Elerick to expand testing .

“Testing is really just the best way to figure out what it is…when you actually start offering this testing, a lot of people are surprised to learn that it’s not just that they have it, it’s that they’ve had it for a while,” Drysdale said.

Joey Crottogini has worked with the Harm Reduction Coalition as part of his job with the county’s Homeless Persons Health Project. In working together, the organizations aim to broaden the range of services they can offer outside of the “brick and mortar” HPHP clinic, and the new funding will assist in those efforts.

“This is something that we also would like to expand in our street medicine program,” said Crottogini, who runs the HPHP clinic.

Crottogini said hepatitis C is a greater risk among the homeless population, due to drug use and a lack of access to preventative care.

According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2.4 million Americans are estimated to be living with hepatitis C — and that number could be as high as 4.7 million.

“People could be living and transmitting hepatitis C and not knowing it, so what we’d like to do is educate people about hepatitis C, and give them the opportunity to educate themselves to get free testing,” Crottogini said.

Christine Rodriguez, the senior program manager for AIDS United in Washington, D.C., knew of the Harm Reduction Coalition’s work from her previous job for the California State Health Department.

“Our mission to end the HIV epidemic, we have to keep these conversations top-of-mind,” she said. “It’s really important for AIDS United and for other folks in the movement to be able to support these organizations to build their capacity back up to provide these services, in particular after sort of, after a break in being able to do so.”

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Crottogini said the funding and the efforts of groups like this will help take one worry out of an unhoused individual’s mind.

“It’s one of those things that you have to test people for, and a lot of times, if you’re experiencing homelessness, your first priority might not be, ‘Oh, I should get tested for hepatitis C,’” he said. “That’s the type of intervention that we want to achieve and expand upon by providing free hepatitis C testing, as well as treatment for the same population.”

With this funding, Drysdale and Garrett believe the nonprofit can better focus on the larger goal of a healthy Santa Cruz.

“The health of one population affects the health of our whole community…you never know what a drug user looks like,” Garrett said. “Having much more proactive, widespread, and rampant available testing is going to make it much safer for not only the folks who may be living with HIV, but also all the people that they are interacting with.”