Ewing leading way for Sierra Harm Reduction

The Sierra Harm Reduction Coalition team, from left, Executive Director Tom Ewing, Harm Reduction Navigator Shay Sullivan, marketing specialist David Jay and Harm Reduction Navigators Dakota Booth and Montana Clute. Courtesy photo

A key priority for the newly-appointed Sierra Harm Reduction Coalition Executive Director Tom Ewing includes ending stigmas around people who use drugs through public outreach and education.

Ewing, a 62-year-old Shingle Springs resident and former management consultant, cofounded the Sierra Harm Reduction Coalition with its now-board president Eric Hill in 2019. He said he saw a need within El Dorado County for harm reduction services after experiencing his own substance use and recovery.

“I recognized there are millions of people out there just like me who had no help before they jump into recovery, if they even make it that far,” Ewing said. “My best friend Eric Hill and I started this organization to take care of people who are using and are not in a position to help themselves.”

The California Department of Public Health-authorized coalition, which aims to reduce negative consequences associated with substance abuse through a series of practical strategies and improve the quality of life of those who use drugs, is implementing plans to update its permit to provide more services to the Tahoe area, including its syringe exchange.

“Last year we gave out 100,000 points to keep people healthy with sterile syringes so they don’t share AIDS, Hep. C and other diseases,” Ewing said. “We collected 108,000, which means we collected 8,000 more than we have out, which is unheard of.”

One of Ewing’s long-term goals is to educate and spread awareness countywide of people who suffer from substance abuse.

“One of the issues everybody runs into with working with people who use drugs is the stigma,” Ewing said. “If I am on drugs, or know people who use drugs and they go into a hospital, they will not be treated well because of the stigma surrounding drug use.”

Sierra Harm staff are currently mobile-only, providing services including fentanyl tests, naloxone, referrals and more through their own vehicles, according to Ewing. The organization has plans to purchase work vans to operate with.

Four employees currently service nearly 500 people in Sierra Harm’s core areas of interest. They build trust with long-standing client relationships and improve quality of life through referrals to services. Last year 120 individuals were referred to various services, according to Ewing.

“The whole process of case management is taking care of these people all the way through until they have been accepted into county support programs, then we continue our relationship with them throughout,” Ewing said. “These are not short-term relationships but the case management is how we get that service to them and make sure we have done our job.”

Ewing said staff is working to formalize schedules for core areas of service to better build relationships with clients.

The ultimate goal of the Sierra Harm team is to respect the rights and autonomy of people who use drugs but help in any recovery.

“If we stay attached to the stigma against them, then they are no longer human, but when you do not attach a stigma, then they are beautiful people who may be using drugs,” Ewing said. “My job is to take care of them and give them their autonomy and when and if ever they are ready for any kind of service, we will help whatever it is.”

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