October 28th, 2016
“I don’t recall a time when the drug war did not affect my life. The punishments my father, brother and sister experienced—arrest, incarceration and HIV/AIDS—for misusing a controlled substance caused a lifetime of grief for my family. As a mother and a health professional, I am against the criminalization of drug use imposed by the War on Drugs.”
Joyce Rivera is the founder and executive director of St. Ann’s Corner of Harm Reduction (SACHR). In 1990, she founded SACHR to provide support and resources for people who inject drugs and to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in the South Bronx. Today, SACHR is a multi-service agency that serves thousands of people throughout New York City and provides a continuum of interventions that treats the whole person in a manner that is nonjudgmental and culturally capable.
Joyce began her effort by working with community residents to distribute sterile syringes and condoms. Recently featured in The New York Times, her approach seemed unconventional but defiantly rooted in personal and professional urgency: “…she teamed up with unlikely allies: two drug dealers in the South Bronx. First, she educated them on how dirty needles and unprotected sex spread HIV, which causes AIDS. Then, she wound up distributing clean syringes to their customers in Mott Haven.” She goes on to say, “I put my time and effort into seeing the drug dealers as real persons who had access to so many users that I could make a dent in the epidemic if I won them over.”
She not only won them over; she pioneered new approaches based on compassion and human dignity that are now being considered as national standards for responding to the current heroin crisis. SACHR has been providing health-based services since long before it became part of our national conversation, when overdose and HIV/AIDS affected mostly people and communities of color.
SACHR offers programs that give people access to lifesaving resources, such as sterile syringes, condoms and naloxone. In addition to social and medical services, clients come in for meals, showers, acupuncture and counseling.
Joyce Rivera is not only a leader in the harm reduction field, she is a visionary whose life’s work has paved the way for humane policies, and whose rallying cry to help the South Bronx became a call to action for advocates across the nation.
The Drug Policy Alliance works to end the drug war in cities and states all around the US by partnering with organizations like SACHR. Produced in partnership with Luceo Images, Joyce’s video is the fifth installment in a video series entitled, “Voices from the Front Lines of the Drug War,” chronicling the people and organizations righting the worst wrongs of the drug war and creating new policies based in science, compassion, health and human rights.
Melissa Franqui is the communications and marketing manager for the Drug Policy Alliance.