Staff and volunteers gather from the Church of Safe Injection, a syringe service program that distributes harm reduction supplies for people who use drugs. One year after the death of its founder, the addiction recovery advocate Jesse Harvey, the group's new leadership received certification by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to operate in Lewiston, Westbrook, Dixfield, Rumford and Bethel. [Top row, left to right: Randy Beard, Director of Operations Zoe Brokos, Executive Director Kari Morissette; Bottom row: Sarah McDermott of the group Recover2gether and board member Ryan Paige. Credit: Courtesy of Zoe Brokos / Church of Safe Injection

Clean syringes, sterile water, tourniquets and overdose-reversing naloxone — these are some of the items that people who use drugs need to keep themselves and others safe from overdose during the opioid epidemic. Soon, those in five Maine towns and cities will have another trusted place they can get them.

The Church of Safe Injection, a nonprofit that provides harm reduction supplies and overdose reversal training for people who use drugs, was cleared by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention last week to operate syringe service programs in Westbrook, Lewiston, Rumford, Dixfield and Bethel.

Life under the pandemic has exacerbated the conditions of an opioid epidemic already at devastating levels. Lockdowns have isolated people with drug addictions, severing them from social contacts and straining programs focusing on recovery and harm reduction in the state.

Overdose cases in Maine and the U.S. hit record-high levels in 2020, and have continued to rise in 2021, averaging 50 deaths a month.

Last year, Gov. Janet Mills issued an executive order temporarily eliminating a rule that required needle exchange programs to collect one used syringe for every clean one they give out to maximize the availability of clean syringes during the pandemic. The move was applauded by the American Medical Association as the organization’s president, Patrice A. Harris, called sterile syringe programs “a proven harm reduction strategy.”

The Church of Safe Injection began as an unauthorized needle exchang e and naloxone distribution program founded by Jesse Harvey, a tireless and charismatic harm reduction advocate who died of an overdose last year at the age of 28.

Before his relapse and sudden death, Harvey had for years been one of the most visible on-the-ground forces helping Mainers fight addiction. He founded the first Journey House, which became a network of sober-living houses for low-income Mainers in recovery.

Harvey also had a habit of flouting state restrictions prohibiting the group from distributing syringes to drug users, believing that the need for clean syringes was greater than the state’s “one-for-one” rule allowed. He battled with state officials, which shook his faith in state-sanctioned routes to fight the opioid epidemic.

“He felt as though the certification process would take too long and was angry with a lot of people at the state for not doing enough after seeing friends and loved ones die drug-related deaths,” said Zoe Brokos, the Church of Safe Injection’s director of operations.

Harvey wasn’t convinced that seeking a license to operate was the way to go. The group’s new leadership has decided that it is.

Kari Morissette, Harvey’s friend, assumed the role of executive director after his death last September, picking up the pieces of the church’s mission statement. Two months later, Brokos left a position with the city of Portland’s Public Health Division that she had held for 10 years to become the church’s director of operations.

The new leadership didn’t continue Harvey’s practice of distributing clean syringes to drug users without Maine CDC approval, hoping to mend relations with state officials. In January, they began the process of applying for certification, gathering letters of recommendation from recovery groups and working with the Maine CDC and Gordon Smith, the state’s director of opioid response.

They spent the spring and summer advocating for harm reduction bills before the Legislature, distributing naloxone for other syringe programs and building on relationships with recovery communities that Harvey had started.

Harvey’s unauthorized work had damaged some valuable relationships with state officials, but also developed a layer of trust between the group and vulnerable drug users who could use their supplies to stay safe. That trust helped the Church’s current leadership bolster its application. With the certification, it becomes the ninth syringe service program in the state

Her work in Portland’s Public Health Division gave Brokos a lot of experience in the field, but she left frustrated with its services.

She lamented that Harvey’s work often fell on deaf ears inside city government.

“People don’t want to hear it, it’s an inconvenience,” Brokos said. “It’s easier to say he’s crazy or messed up on drugs or whatever. I don’t ever want to be a part of that ever again.”

There were 175 reported overdoses in Portland from Jan. 1 through Aug. 31, with 14 deaths, according to the Portland Police Department. That’s a slight decline from previous years, when there were 208 overdoses over the same time period in 2019 and 2020.

But city health officials caution against seeing those figures as an improvement, as people struggling with addiction and homelessness may have been pushed out of the city limits.

“There aren’t as many folks in the city of Portland right now,” said Bridget Rauscher, the Public Health Division’s program manager. “I don’t think we are on a steady decline.”

Adjacent communities like South Portland and Westbrook could be seeing them instead. Westbrook, for instance, saw 78 reported overdoses in 2020, a 59 percent increase over 2019 levels.

Sarah Thorne of the South Portland Police Department’s recovery corps said the city has “become a hub for many individuals experiencing homelessness.”

“This has also brought many people from other areas into South Portland,” she said, elevating the region’s documented overdose cases.  

Originally, the church included Portland and South Portland in their application, but backed off in favor of the five municipalities they were cleared for last month. They plan to identify public areas in Lewiston, Westbrook and the other newly certified towns and cities where vulnerable people can find them.

“We’re certainly not trying to step on anyone’s toes,” Brokos said. “There’s plenty of need. We just want to make sure that we’re in those places where there aren’t any services being offered or where services are inadequate.”