PORTLAND, Maine — Kari Morissette had been sober for three months when she moved from Florida to Maine last winter. Born in Rumford, she returned to the state after bouncing around Miami, part of a long stint as an intravenous drug user. Now, she was looking for a fresh start.
Morissette wasn’t in Maine’s recovery community long before she met Jesse Harvey, an energetic advocate and charismatic founder of the Church of Safe Injection, at a meeting at the recovery center.
“He was this cool, funny, quirky guy,” Morissette said.
The Church of Safe Injection is a mobile operation to distribute sterile needles for people who use drugs. A week or so after meeting Harvey, she saw a social media post that said the church was looking for help.
Morissette asked Harvey where she could apply. He told her she didn’t need to. The job was hers.
Soon, Morissette was helping Harvey conduct distribution calls, dropping Narcan, an overdose prevention drug, and clean syringes for people who used drugs in Lewiston. Soon she was participating in meetings with health professionals and others in recovery. Before she knew it, she was leading the organization’s outreach program in Lewiston.
“All Jesse ever wanted to do was help people,” Morissette said.
Harvey died Monday, in what police called a possible overdose. He was 28.
A vigil will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 19 at the gazebo in the Eastern Promenade in Portland to remember Harvey.
Maine saw a record-breaking 132 fatal drug overdoses in the first quarter of 2020, a 23 percent increase of such deaths during the last three months of 2019. That rate has increased again as the pandemic persists.
Over the past few years, Harvey became one of the most visible forces fighting addiction. A leader in the recovery and harm reduction movements, Harvey advocated for cities to set up and fund safe-injection sites staffed with trained health professionals to prevent fatal overdoses to counter the opioid epidemic. Before the Church of Safe Injection, Harvey founded the first Journey House, a network of sober-living homes for low-income people that has become a vital part of a surge of recovery residencies in the state.
Morissette quickly recognized that Harvey had a special ability to connect with people when she met him last fall. He spoke from personal experience in a way that drew people into his work. He was also “a goofball” who put people at ease and did not shy away from “radical” positions or policy goals.
“He was the person in the harm reduction community that said what everybody else wanted to say but were too fearful of controversy,” Morissette said.
In 2015, after arrests, a jail sentence and a fifth commitment to a treatment center, Harvey began to make serious strides toward creating spaces where harm reduction principles could apply. He embraced recovery houses, safe-injection sites and medication-assisted treatment. Today, there are four certified Journey House recovery residencies in the state, in Lewiston and South Portland and two in Sanford,
Harvey’s ability to connect with people helped Mainers understand the crisis they were in. Through his advocacy, Harvey’s relationships with politicians, professionals and people who used drugs helped people understand their stake in the opioid epidemic. His efforts expanded beyond the state, too.
Ryan Hampton, a national advocate for addiction recovery who worked on addiction recovery policy in the White House, considered Harvey a friend — “someone I cared about and loved immensely” — whose spirit will live on.
Harvey’s work saw “significant barriers from Republican and Democratic administrations,” said Kenney Miller, Harvey’s friend and colleague. His bipartisan advocacy for criminal justice reform and the implementation of safe-use sites showed that government officials have politicized public health in a way that doesn’t help vulnerable people “despite overwhelming evidence that supports these approaches,” Miller said.
Harvey was early down the road to his own recovery when he met Miller at a harm reduction conference. Miller, the executive director of Health Equity Alliance, a Bangor-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of marginalized people in Maine, was impressed with Harvey’s eagerness to learn and apply the principles of harm reduction through his own experiences.
After Harvey launched the first Journey House in 2016, he joined Miller on a number of policy issues, helping to lay the policy agenda for the Maine Coalition For Sensible Drug Policy. In 2017, Miller asked Harvey to sit on the organization’s board of directors, which Harvey did for two years. The organization presented with the Harm Reduction Hero award in 2018.
The way Harvey conducted his work both in and outside the recovery community was an inspiration, said Glenn Simpson, who counted Harvey as a friend and colleague for many years.
“The way he navigated really complex systems with people that weren’t [always] open to his perspective, and the way that he was able to do that with passion and compassion, humility and the truth — it inspired me,” Simpson said.
Simpson is a Portland-based therapist who specializes in working with people with substance use disorder and the traumas that accompany it. He met Harvey while he was getting his master’s degree a few years ago, and came aboard when Harvey launched the Portland Overdose Prevention Society, which evolved to the Church of Safe Injection.
Simpson and Harvey would hang out in Deering Oaks at the gazebo and talk about how the opioid epidemic was affecting their communities.
“He came to me and said, I have this idea, it’s something called The Church of Safe Injection, what do you think about that?” Simpson recalled those conversations in the park. “I said, ‘Jesse, if there’s any person who can handle the pushback that comes from creating something like that, it’s you.’”
Harvey rubbed off on Simpson. More than 20 years his elder, Simpson had just finished his master’s degree and wasn’t fully public about his recovery. Harvey convinced him to “recover out loud.”
“That was the beginning of me getting involved as an advocate and being really open about my own recovery,” Simpson said. “To speak about it not only from a professional perspective but also a personal perspective.”
Harvey’s personal accountability and ability to connect with people was a virtue, but it made him more visible. When he relapsed, many of the relationships he built over the years seemed to wash away. The isolated pandemic conditions further cut him off from his people.
“He really felt abandoned by the people he thought of as friends up until that point,” Miller said.
To Miller, the isolation he saw Harvey live through after years of building connections illustrates the persistence of stigma that vulnerable people face in the absence of public support and available resources — a stigma that can reinforce cultural narratives about who deserves to live.
“He fell victim to the war on drugs,” Miller said, referring to U.S. policies that criminalize and strip support systems from people who use drugs more than the drugs themselves.
Harvey’s struggles were bigger than the coronavirus, but the conditions and policies in place during the pandemic didn’t help.
According to Morissette, Harvey relapsed roughly a week after the coronavirus pandemic reached Maine in March. They were in Lewiston doing a routine distribution drop after the shutdown orders when a police officer told them that their work wasn’t a public health necessity. Harvey began using again after they were forced to change their operations.
Harm reduction principles have evolved to respond to the pandemic, but other factors are at play. Social distancing guidelines have made it harder to seek resources or support, while increased isolation has been found to threaten people’s recovery and compromise mental health, the Health Equity Alliance has found. Travel restrictions and heightened safety precautions have also strained the blackmarket drug trade, making it harder for people who use drugs to get and maintain access to their normal suppliers. As a result, Miller has heard tales that even more toxic supplies of drugs have circulated through the state, making fatal overdoses more likely.
“Whenever we see supply being compromised, whether by law enforcement or in this case the pandemic, we see an increase in overdoses as well,” Miller said.
The Portland City Council has discussed the possibility of safe-injection sites in the past.
On Tuesday, hours after reports of Harvey’s death surfaced, the city’s health and human services committee postponed discussion of safe-injection sites for possible recommendation to the City Council. Philadelphia became the first city in the country to approve a facility that would allow and supervise the injection of illegal drugs, but plans have been put on hold during the pandemic.
Those who worked alongside Harvey say the push for more public support for addiction recovery services has never been more urgent, and there are a lot more people empowered because of him.
“Substance use disorder is not a moral issue, and it is certainly not a criminal justice issue,” Simpson said.
“When are the police and the policymakers and the politicians and the public going to stand up like Jesse did — like Jesse continues to do — and say nobody who uses drugs deserves to die,” Simpson said.